Allstate Sugar Bowl
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET (ESPN)
No. 15 Texas (9-4) vs. No. 5 Georgia (11-2)
Two name-brand programs will arrive in New Orleans for one of the more compelling matchups of this bowl season, but with distinctly different views on their individual seasons.
For Georgia, which was minutes away from beating Alabama before a Jalen Hurts-led rally took the SEC championship out of the Bulldogs' grasp, it's a bit of a letdown. The Dawgs had their hopes fixed on the College Football Playoff but instead get the Sugar, which isn't a bad consolation prize (it also speaks volumes about where Kirby Smart has this program when playing in the Sugar Bowl vs. Texas is somewhat of a disappointment).
For the Longhorns, this is yet another stop on the "Texas is back!" tour, an important piece in their ever-long journey into national prominence. Sure, the Horns wanted a Big 12 championship and felt they had it in their grasp, but they weren't a playoff team and they'll be thrilled to have the opportunity to take on a top-five team on New Year's Day in one of the more historic bowl games out there.
Will it be a case of one team wanting this game more than the other? Not according to Smart, who says you can "turn on the tape" of the Longhorns to get the team's attention.
"These kids recover faster than you think they do," Smart said. "Obviously there's disappointment in the [SEC championship] result but there's also the opportunity to move forward with a young team and a chance to go on a national stage with our fans, who I know will follow us to play in a New Year's Six bowl game."
The Longhorns' upperclassmen, who have endured their fair share of struggles en route to this point, are hoping to reach 10 wins in a season for the first time since 2009 and put their stamp on this pivotal season.
"It's really big for our team and us seniors," senior defensive tackle Chris Nelson said. "To have a chance to leave a legacy on the program and get it back to the level that Texas needs to be at is special."
If you like physical football, this is a game for you. Both teams pride themselves on that aspect of the game.
Key player for Texas: Sam Ehlinger has given the Longhorns a consistently good, reliable player at quarterback for the first time this decade. He was responsible for 38 touchdowns this season (25 passing, 13 rushing), matching Vince Young in 2005 for the second most in Longhorns history. His sophomore season has ushered in significant growth for the gunslinging, devil-may-care Ehlinger. He's smarter with the football (only five interceptions vs. seven last year, despite 123 more attempts this season) and he's an invaluable option in the run game, using his legs to get many key first downs. Texas has two big-time receivers on the outside in Collin Johnson and Lil'Jordan Humphrey, two big, physical pass-catchers who have given opponents nightmares all season. It's still on Ehlinger to get the ball to them, which he has done beautifully all season long.
Key player for Georgia: It was a tale of two seasons for running back D'Andre Swift, who was hamstrung by injuries during September and managed just 57 yards from scrimmage per game. Ever since, he's become the linchpin in the offense, amassing 1,004 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage over the past eight games. When he's running at full speed and utilizing that vicious cutback move of his, he's hard to stop. Just ask Alabama, which was victimized by it during the first three quarters of the SEC championship. The last quarter of that game, when Swift fell by the wayside and Georgia's offense crumbled, makes you realize how important Swift is to what Georgia does.
Most important matchup: We're going to spend a lot of time dissecting Jake Fromm, Ehlinger and the rest of the skill players on both sides of the ball, but let's be realistic and acknowledge that this is a game that will come down to what happens in the trenches. The concern, if you're a Texas fan, is how your defensive line will hold up. Because if you watched that line at all this season, you know it lacks a certain toughness. Conversely, if you saw Georgia's offensive line late in the year, in particular against Alabama, you know it can be a bunch of maulers. If that holds true and the Bulldogs dominate the line of scrimmage, it's game over.
X factor: Just a few days ago, Smart was lobbying for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Despite being a two-loss team, the Bulldogs felt they had the résumé to get in. But they didn't, and now we're left to wonder about their motivations moving forward. Do they see this game, even though it's the Sugar Bowl, as a consolation prize? Will players begin looking forward to the draft, as many are wont to do in non-playoff games? Will defensive coordinator Mel Tucker stick around, considering he's set to become the head coach at Colorado? It's easy to say Georgia will give this game its full attention, but it's harder to do when your hopes of playing for a national championship have been dashed.