By PAUL NEWBERRY AP National Writer
ATLANTA — They are titans of the college gridiron, a pair of perennial powerhouses that, amazingly enough, have faced each other only once in their long 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 intersectional bragging rights.
They’ll be playing for a whole lot more on New Year’s Eve in the Peach Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff – 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 they made the playoff when USC lost to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game.
All of it adds up to 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 touchdowns.
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 eight 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 and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud – and plenty of firepower.
The Buckeyes rank second in the nation at 44.5 points per 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 playoff victories.
Stroud, the former Rancho Cucamonga High standout 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.
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 sure could use him against Georgia, which has allowed a nation-low 77 yards rushing 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 a knee injury, while Ladd McConkey (51 catches, 675 yards, five TDs) had to come out because of knee tendinitis.
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 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 the Buckeyes, who feature 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 in 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 SEC title game.
PEACH BOWL AT A GLANCE
Who: No. 1 Georgia (13-0) vs. No. 4 Ohio State (11-1)
When: Saturday, 5 p.m. PT
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
TV/radio: ESPN, 830 AM
FanDuel Sportsbook Line: Georgia by 6
Series record: Georgia defeated Ohio State, 21-14, in the Florida Citrus Bowl to end the 1992 season in the only previous meeting between the schools.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Georgia is trying to become the first team since Alabama in 2011-12 to win consecutive national titles. A year ago, the Bulldogs claimed their first championship since the 1980 season. Ohio State can reach the national title game for the third time, even though the Buckeyes didn’t play for the Big Ten championship. They won the inaugural CFP title during the 2014-15 campaign and lost to Alabama in the championship game two seasons ago.
Georgia’s pass defense against Ohio State WRs Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. The Bulldogs gave up 502 yards passing against LSU in the SEC championship game – the most they’ve surrendered in Kirby Smart’s seven years as coach. Even though most of those yards came with Georgia comfortably ahead, it will be interesting to see if the Bulldogs can tighten things up against a talented receiving corps that has a Heisman Trophy finalist delivering the throws.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ohio State: Running back Miyan Williams missed much of practice this week with a stomach bug, and there’s also the question of an ankle injury he sustained last month against Indiana. Williams sat out one game and had only eight carries for 34 yards in a regular season-ending loss to Michigan. He’ll be going against a Georgia defense that has allowed just 77 rushing yards per game, the best in the nation.
Georgia: Former walk-on Stetson Bennett is on the cusp of going down as one the greatest big-game quarterbacks in college football history. He claimed offensive MVP honors in Georgia’s two playoff victories a season ago. He did the same in this year’s SEC championship game. Over those three contests, Bennett has completed 60 of 85 passes for 811 yards and nine touchdowns with no interceptions.
FACTS & FIGURES
Georgia is playing in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium – about 75 miles from its Athens campus – for the third time this season. The Bulldogs opened with a 49-3 victory over Oregon, and romped past LSU, 50-30, for the SEC title. … Ohio State is playing in the Peach Bowl for the first time. … Georgia is 4-2 in the Peach Bowl, its most recent appearance coming two seasons ago when the Bulldogs defeated Cincinnati, 24-21. … The Buckeyes are hoping to duplicate their run to the national title during the inaugural playoff, when they upset SEC powerhouse Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal and went on to beat Oregon in the title game. … Ohio State is making its fifth playoff appearance overall. … Georgia has reached the title game in its two previous CFP appearances, losing to Alabama to end the 2017 season before getting payback against the Crimson Tide a season ago. … Ohio State ranks second nationally in scoring (44.5 points per game).