ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan dominated Ohio State and Iowa the last two weeks of the regular season to win a Big Ten championship, but now, it will face by far its toughest test as Georgia awaits in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
Before its loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game on Saturday, Georgia was widely regarded as the best team in college football. The Bulldogs still rank No. 1 in nearly every major metric after a 12-0 regular season that featured just one game closer than 17 points.
The Week 1 matchup between No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Georgia was one of the most anticipated games of the entire season, and it proved to be the only time Georgia faced any real adversity.
After surviving that neutral site dual, Georgia won its next 11 games by an average of 36.2 points. The closest game of that stretch came in a 17-point victory over Kentucky, and even that was was a 24-point beatdown before Kentucky scored with four seconds remaining.
Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- in the SEC East challenged Georgia. Tennessee held a brief lead into the early moments of the second quarter, but Georgia stormed back with 34 unanswered points to put that upset bid to rest before anyone realized it was happening.
The most impressive stretch of Georgia’s season came against Vanderbilt and Arkansas, two games the Bulldogs won by a combined score of 99-0. Arkansas was undefeated heading into Athens, and Georgia sent the Razorbacks home with a 37-0 drubbing.
Could that dominance work against Georgia in a playoff game? The Bulldogs, even more so than Ohio State, cruised through most of the last three months. It was obvious in the Alabama game that when Georgia took a couple of punches, it struggled to fight back.
The Wolverines aren’t as talented as Alabama, but they should be the second-toughest team Georgia has seen this year. And they’ve experienced more than their fair share of adversity.
Georgia’s schedule is unique in that it played the majority of its games against solid teams, but not very many against elite competition.
Nine of the 12 opponents on Georgia’s regular-season schedule finished with between six and nine wins. Three of those teams finished the year ranked in the College Football Playoff committee’s top 25: No. 19 Clemson, No. 21 Arkansas and No. 22 Kentucky.
In those three top-25 matchups, Georgia won by an average of 20.3 points -- hence the No. 1 ranking for the entire second half of the season.
Here’s where Georgia’s top-20 strength of schedule starts to feel a bit deceiving, though. Take a look at the other six bowl-eligible teams Georgia beat this season:
- UAB (8-4)
- South Carolina (6-6)
- Auburn (6-6)
- Florida (6-6)
- Missouri (6-6)
- Tennessee (7-5)
Considering Clemson, Arkansas and Kentucky have their own questions, that Alabama score deserves a bit of a double take. Georgia only played three cupcakes -- Vanderbilt, Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech -- but it also avoided a true juggernaut until the SEC championship game.
And we all saw what happened there.
Comparing to Michigan’s resume
This breakdown isn’t meant to question Georgia’s legitimacy. It doesn’t take an expert to watch the Bulldogs and know they’re an elite team. But I tend to think Michigan’s path to an almost identical strength of schedule is more valuable when it comes to the College Football Playoff.
Look at it this way: When these two teams take the field on New Year’s Eve, Georgia won’t have to win four straight games against 6-6 teams. It will have to win one game against a top-tier team, something it simply hasn’t done this season. It only had one chance: the loss to Alabama.
Michigan, on the other hand, played a playoff caliber opponent in Ohio State. The Wolverines also beat a 10-win Iowa team by 39 points on a neutral site and have the experience of playing 10-win Michigan State on the road (a game Michigan controlled, but then fumbled away).
Jim Harbaugh’s team has played three games against top-15 caliber teams, while Georgia has only played one. The Wolverines were obviously much more successful in all three of their opportunities than Georgia was in its lone try.
Winning away from home
Despite the seeding, Georgia has a geographical advantage over Michigan in the playoff, so the Orange Bowl crowd is likely to feature a bit more red than maize and blue. But that’s still very different than playing a home game.
Michigan visited three hostile road environments this season: Nebraska, Michigan State and Penn State. The Wolverines blew late leads and found a way to win two of those games, which provides valuable experience going into a win-or-go-home scenario. It’s also worth noting that Michigan went into Madison and manhandled Wisconsin, which doesn’t happen very often.
The combination of wins at Wisconsin and at Penn State stack up well with what Georgia did on the road. The Bulldogs won at Vanderbilt, Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech this year -- two lifeless programs and a pair of bowl teams.
When Georgia went to Auburn, the Tigers were ranked No. 18, so the atmosphere was plenty electric. Winning at Tennessee is no walk in the park either, which is a testament to a fan base that hasn’t seen a team with fewer than four losses since before Twitter was invented.
Georgia owns neutral site wins over Clemson and Florida, while Michigan has a neutral site win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. Overall, the Wolverines probably faced tougher competition on the road, but the environments Georgia visited might have been just as hostile.
Just because Georgia didn’t face as many top-tier opponents as Michigan doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been able to handle them. The Bulldogs would have been favored against every team on Michigan’s schedule, and the end result likely would have been 12 or 13 wins.
But hopefully everyone who counted Michigan out against Ohio State learned their lesson. The Buckeyes were favored by more than a touchdown, and the same will likely be true for Georgia when the Orange Bowl kicks off.
Michigan is facing an uphill battle, but it’s not nearly as steep as some believe.