ATLANTA (AP) — They are titans of the college gridiron, a pair of perennial powerhouses that, amazingly enough, have faced each other only once in their long, storied histories.
Three decades ago, a quaint era before playoffs and RPOs and NIL, Georgia beat Ohio State in a bowl game that meant little more than bragging rights.
They’ll be playing for a whole lot more on New Year’s Eve in the College Football Playoff semifinal Peach Bowl — a berth in the national title game.
The top-ranked Bulldogs (13-0) are looking to take the penultimate step toward their second straight national championship, having barely broken a sweat on the way to the Southeastern Conference crown.
No. 4 Ohio State (11-1) is a bit more fortunate to be in this position, having slipped into the final playoff spot without winning its division in the Big Ten.
A resounding loss to Michigan in the regular-season finale knocked the Buckeyes out of contention for their conference title, but made the playoff when USC lost in the Pac-12 championship game.
All of it adds up a thoroughly intriguing semifinal between schools with so much tradition — from Georgia’s Uga mascot to the Ohio State band’s dotting of the “i” — but hardly any face time with each other.
Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg was asked what he knew about the Bulldogs.
“Before playing them, no familiarity,” he replied. “I mean, I’ve seen them play, but obviously this past week studying them now. I don’t know anyone who went there. Nothing really.”
Eichenberg’s ignorance is understandable.
On New Year’s Day in 1993, the Bulldogs completed the best season of the mostly forgettable Ray Goff era with a 21-14 Citrus Bowl victory over the John Cooper-led Buckeyes. It was a smash-mouth game that featured Georgia’s Garrison Hearst and Ohio State’s Robert Smith each rushing for more than 100 yards and two TDs.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they had a quarterback (Eric Zeier) who could throw the ball, too. The Buckeyes, with now-ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit taking the snaps, completed just 8 of 24 passes for 110 yards with an interception.
“It was a good win for the Dawgs,” recalled Will Muschamp, Georgia’s co-defensive coordinator who played in that game for his alma mater. “We had a luncheon, and Herbstreit got up and threw a pass across the room.
“I knew we had a shot to win.”
Joking aside, there are no Herbstreits in this one. But both teams feature Heisman Trophy finalists at quarterback — Georgia’s Stetson Bennett vs. Ohio State C.J. Stroud — and plenty of firepower.
The Buckeyes rank second in the nation at 44.5 points a game, while Georgia checks in at No. 10 with a 39.2-point average.
The big question for Ohio State: Can they match up physically with the bruising Bulldogs?
Georgia is just as comfortable pounding an opponent into submission with its deep group of running backs as it is opening things up for Bennett and a talented collection of pass catchers led by tight end Brock Bowers.
Ohio State faced such a test against Michigan — and failed miserably. Now, the Buckeyes get the reigning national champs.
“It’s football, and you have to play physical,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Certainly it’s going to be the most physical game you’ve played all season.”
Bennett, a former walk-on, could go down as one of the best big-game quarterbacks in college football history.
He has earned offensive MVP honors in his last three postseason contests, completing a cumulative 60 of 85 passes for 811 yards and nine touchdowns with no interceptions in this year’s SEC championship game and last season’s two College Football Playoff victories.
Stroud, who was heavily recruited by Georgia before landing at Ohio State, will be facing a Bulldogs defense that gave up 502 yards passing in a 50-30 victory over LSU for the SEC title.
He views that as nothing more than an anomaly in a game that Georgia led comfortably most of the way.
“I’m pretty sure they’re not going to let us drop back and do what we want to do,” Stroud said. “I’m pretty sure they’ve been watching film on us and make sure that’s something they stop.”
After being a no-show much of the week, Ohio State running back Miyan Williams finally turned up at practice Thursday.
Coach Ryan Day said his player has been dealing with a stomach bug but would be ready to go Saturday.
It remains to be seen how effective Williams will be after sustaining an ankle injury against Indiana last month. He missed one game and had only eight carries for 34 yards in the loss to Michigan.
The Buckeyes could sure use him against Georgia, which has allowed a nation-leading 77 rushing yards per game.
Speaking of injuries, the Bulldogs could be missing a couple of key players. In the SEC title game, offensive lineman Warren McClendon sustained an knee ligament injury, while Ladd McConkey (51 catches, 675 yards, five TDs) had to come out because of knee tendonitis.
Smart played it coy all week, merely saying he hopes both can play after four weeks to recover.
EYE ON THE TIGHT ENDS
Georgia has two huge weapons at tight end, and the Buckeyes aren’t too shabby at that often-overlooked position, either.
Bowers is the Bulldogs’ top receiver with 52 catches for 726 yards and six TDs, while 6-foot-7, 270-pound Darnell Washington presents an imposing physical challenge.
Ohio State counters with Cade Stover, who has 35 catches for 399 yards and five scores. He calls the tight end position “a very key piece to a good offense.”
A deep defensive front — even after losing three players in the first round of the NFL draft — has allowed Georgia to keep the heat on opposing quarterbacks without the need for a lot of blitzing. That will be a key against Stroud and Ohio State, which features a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka).
It figures to be a pro-Bulldogs crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is about 75 miles from Georgia’s Athens campus.
This is Georgia’s third appearance of the season at the stadium that is home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. The Bulldogs opened with a 49-3 rout of Oregon and romped again in the conference title game.
Paul Newberry is a national sports writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org
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