Is Georgia the Best Team in the Country? A Theory Explored
In the wake of Georgia’s 23-17 victory over Notre Dame, two narratives emerged.
The first gets us essentially nowhere. That trope is that this was, in fact, a heavyweight title fight. Two big, bad teams fought each other; there could be only one winner. Yahoo (Pat Forde), CBS (Barrett Sallee) and ESPN (Kirk Herbstreit) all referenced the heavyweightedness of the game as something of a qualifier or even definer of the matchup.
With all due respect to Narrative One: Duh.
Notre Dame and Georgia represent the only two programs not named Clemson, Alabama or Oklahoma to make a Playoff appearance over the past two seasons. Both Notre Dame and Georgia entered the game ranked in the Top 7. It was a big game. Got it. HEAVYWEIGHTS!
The second narrative to emerge has been a bit more surprising: Georgia is not quite ready for primetime, but Notre Dame proved its place as a national power. Somehow, Notre Dame has managed to gain more in defeat than Georgia gained in victory. Somehow, Georgia was disappointing in victory but not so disappointing so as to invalidate the mounds of praise being heaped on Notre Dame. Georgia was just bad enough to be exposed by a Notre Dame team that was just good enough to merit playoff consideration without beating a Georgia team that was exposed. Makes sense, right?
Herbstreit finds himself in both narrative pools, but really shines in his duplicitously stupid defense of Narrative Two.
Herbstreit, does not have Georgia in his Top Four after the win over Notre Dame. That is truly baffling—especially in light of the broader consensus for the media. For context, 61 of 62 AP Poll voters have the Dawgs in the Top Four; the 62nd voter has the Dawgs fifth. And yet, Herbstreit had these things to say about then-No. 7 Notre Dame’s loss to allegedly not-top-four Georgia:
- SO IMPRESSED by Notre Dame football tonight!!
- Did NOTHING to hurt their case-only strengthened their position.
- Irish on the road gained some national respect!
For what it’s worth, Herbstreit isn’t the only one pushing this theory or some watered-down version of it. The Athletic’s coverage (admittedly from a Notre Dame beat writer), as another example, lauded the “worthy reward” the Irish found in the fight, noting, “Notre Dame was good enough to scare a Georgia team that doesn’t scare easily.” Was that really the takeaway? As I’ll point out later, I think it may have actually been a lack of fear that actually played a hand in the final score.
Reading game recaps on Sunday morning actually made me question my own sanity. Had Georgia not won? I know it wasn’t as pretty as some wanted. But didn’t the Bulldogs pull it out? Hell, didn’t the Bulldogs lead for a longer period than Notre Dame?
So while we’re over-reacting with things that may not quite make sense, I’d like to join the cause with this third narrative: Georgia is the best football team in the country.
Let’s start with a simple defense of this claim.
Ultimately, the College Football Playoff Committee cares about resumes. Voters (be it coaches or the media) may have differing motivations in their polls (Who would win a hypothetical match-up? Who has the highest ceiling? Who’s playing best right now?) and formulas are often used for projections. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think the Committee doesn’t care, first and foremost, about who has won the biggest games while displaying the fewest blemishes.
No one in the country has a single better win than Georgia’s win over Notre Dame. Contrary to popular belief, Georgia —not Notre Dame—was the big winner on Saturday night. I know, because I saw it with my own two eyes. Georgia scored more points than Notre Dame.
Given that radical revelation, let’s dig deeper. No one in the country has defeated a team that was ranked higher than Notre Dame (then ranked seventh by both the AP and the Coaches polls). What’s more, nobody has defeated a team currently ranked higher than Notre Dame (10th in both polls). This is the best win of the season…for anybody.
- LSU beat Texas when the Longhorns were ranked ninth (when Notre Dame was ranked 8th, by the way) and the Longhorns are still ranked lower than Notre Dame. Georgia’s 6-point win over Notre Dame was more impressive than LSU’s 7-point win over lower-ranked Texas.
- Auburn defeated Oregon by six points when the Ducks were ranked 11th and Texas A&M by eight points when the Aggies were ranked 17th. Neither of those wins were more impressive than Georgia’s win this past weekend. Though in terms of volume, sure Auburn has two better wins than Georgia’s two best wins.
- Southern Cal beat Utah by seven points at home when the Utes were ranked 10th. Is that supposed to mean more than Georgia’s win?
- Cal beat Washington when the Huskies were ranked 14th. Sure.
- Wisconsin dismantled a Michigan team (then ranked 11th) that is now ranked 20th.
No one in the country has a better win—as defined by rankings—than Georgia. That’s indisputable.
As for blemishes outside of Georgia’s win over the Fighting Irish (which made Georgia look irreparably broken to some), I’m not sure what would detract from the Bulldogs. There obviously aren’t any losses. Beyond that, Georgia defeated Vanderbilt 30-6 in a game that was paced quite differently but every bit as uncontested as LSU’s 66-38 win over the Commodores. Nobody has beaten Vanderbilt worse. The Dawgs beat Murray State by 46 points (the Racers largest deficit this year). Georgia handed Arkansas State, a team riding an 8-year Bowl streak, 55-0. The last time the Red Wolves lost by 55 points was in 2003 (a 55-0 loss at Ole Miss). Since that time, the following ranked teams failed to hand Arkansas State a 55-point defeat.
- 2004: #18 Missouri (52-20), #6 LSU (53-3), #25 Memphis (47-35)
- 2006: #6 Auburn (27-0)
- 2007: #4 Texas (21-13)
- 2008: #2 Alabama (35-0)
- 2009: #22 Nebraska (38-9), #13 Iowa (24-21)
- 2010: #22 Auburn (52-26)
- 2011: #13 Virginia Tech (26-7)
- 2012: #5 Oregon (57-34), #25 Kent State (17-13 WIN)
- 2015: #8 USC (55-6), #21 Missouri (27-20)
- 2018: #1 Alabama (57-7)
Arkansas State isn’t an elite team. But nobody in the country has hammered the Red Wolves this way over the past 15+ years.
If a resume is built by signature wins without setbacks, Georgia has to be at the top of the list.
But for a bit more nuance on just how good this Georgia team might actually be, let’s revisit the Notre Dame game itself. I don’t think most Georgia fans felt the Bulldogs played all that well on Saturday. Dawgs247 graded Georgia’s position groups as follows:
- Quarterback: B+
- Running Back: A-
- Receivers and Tight Ends: B
- Offensive Line: B
- Defensive Line: A-
- Outside Linebackers: B
- Inside Linebackers: A-
- Defensive Backs: A
- Special Teams: C-
- Overall: B
If anything, I’d peg the team a tick lower. Seemed like low-B / high-C execution to me. Credit to Notre Dame for forcing some of the hits to the GPA, but not all of it (terrible punts, the muffed punt, a refusal to commit to the run early, a refusal to throw the ball downfield early) was a byproduct of Notre Dame. And these problems aren’t necessarily recurring.
But let’s presume, just for a moment, that this report card is accurate and accurate solely for one performance. If that’s the case, then a B-effort from Georgia, playing much of the game without two starters on the offensive line and down three guys in the secondary, was driving and in a position to go up by as much as 17 points with under seven minutes to play against the nation’s seventh-best team.
If the portion of media that thinks “Notre Dame is for real” is in fact right, then Georgia is the scariest team in the country—as least based on what we’ve seen so far. After all, with a less-than-stellar performance, the Bulldogs damn-near ran away with this thing. So why didn’t they? Some (myself included) have accused Kirby Smart of being too conservative and “playing not to lose.” That could be it. In particular, some (see: me) question:
- His decision to kick a field goal from the 26-yard line on fourth-and-one after the spot was close enough to mandate a video review. I hated that.
- His refusal to call a timeout as Notre Dame marched down the field on the ensuing possession. That was maddening.
But given the B/C-level performance from everyone not named Rodrigo Blankenship, maybe the field goal was the right move. What do I know?
Hear me out on this, though. It seems like if the two teams’ best performances were truly on display and as evenly matched as the game’s final score and final statistical line ended up, there would have been a larger premium placed on getting seven points (as opposed to the three the Bulldogs got). In other words, if the best effort from Georgia was truly only six points better than the best effort from Notre Dame, don’t you think you’d chase points any chance you had?
Georgia was not terribly opportunistic on Saturday, but the Bulldogs didn’t have to be (failing to cash in on opportunities still yielded a win). Maybe the urgency to create an opportunity for seven points didn’t exist because it didn’t need to exist.
Perhaps there was insecurity in Smart’s faking of the field goal. Or maybe the field goal actually had a bit of confidence behind it—confidence in recognizing that a sub-par effort was enough to beat a Top-7 team. Get the win and move on. After all, that’s what Georgia did.
Or maybe Georgia doesn’t belong. Believe what you want.
That’s all I got/