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Is This The Year Georgia Finally Wins The College Football Playoff?

It’s hard to come closer to a national title without winning one than the Georgia Bulldogs did over the past two seasons. In 2017, UGA had a 20-7 second half lead over Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship — at one point, ESPN’s win probability model gave the Dawgs a 92.5 percent chance of winning — before Bama backup QB Tua Tagovailoa led the Crimson Tide to an incredible comeback win. Last season, the Bulldogs were an elite team again, and yet again they had the Tide on the ropes in the second half of a hugely important game (this time the SEC Championship) before ultimately losing when a backup QB helped engineer another Alabama rally.1 UGA ultimately missed the playoff as a result, despite probably having enough talent to deserve inclusion.

If, as they say, the third time is the charm, then this is it for head coach Kirby Smart and Georgia. The team has been good enough to win a championship in each of the previous two seasons, only to be thwarted by extraordinary circumstances — and an extraordinary opponent in the form of Smart’s old boss, Nick Saban. With junior quarterback Jake Fromm coming back for what might be the last time, this could be UGA’s most talented team yet under Smart. But can they finally break through in another college football season that figures to be dominated by Clemson and Alabama?

Other teams from history have been as good as the 2017-18 Dawgs in consecutive seasons with zero titles to show for it — but it’s pretty rare. For each team in every season since 1980,2 I calculated a “Season Score” based on our Elo ratings. The Season Score takes three measures of a team’s performance — its end-of-season Elo; its average season-long Elo; and its peak Elo3 — and averages them together to create a composite rating on the same scale as regular Elo, where the FBS average is about 1,500.

A Season Score of 2,000 is very impressive; only 100 have happened since 1980, and 33 percent of those teams have won the national championship.4 (The best Season Score belongs to Alabama in 2016 — ironically, a team that didn’t win the championship — with a mark of 2,229.) But a score of 2,000 in consecutive seasons is even rarer. Last season, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State joined the ranks of just 43 teams since 1980 to have back-to-back Season Scores of at least 2,000. All but eight of those teams — a number that includes both Georgia and Ohio State — failed to win at least a share of a championship in either season.

UGA has been great … but not great enough

Teams since 1980 with a Season Score* of 2,000 in back-to-back seasons, but no national championship in either season

Year 1 Year 2
School Conference Year Record Season Sc. Year Record Season Sc.
Georgia SEC 2017 13-2 2,077 2018 11-3 2,007
Ohio State Big Ten 2017 12-2 2,002 2018 13-1 2,057
Alabama SEC 2013 11-2 2,066 2014 12-2 2,099
Oregon Pac 12 2011 12-2 2,008 2012 12-1 2,025
USC Pac 10 2005 12-1 2,061 2006 11-2 2,003
Florida State Indep. 1988 11-1 2,004 1989 10-2 2,034
Florida SEC 1984 9-1 2,033 1985 9-1 2,017
Pittsburgh Indep. 1980 11-1 2,002 1981 11-1 2,012

*Season Score is a blend of a team’s final end-of-season Elo, its peak Elo and its overall average Elo throughout the season.

Source: ESPN

The hallmark of Georgia’s recent run under Smart might be how complete his teams are. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, UGA had the nation’s fifth-best offense and third-best defense in 2017. They then inverted that with the third-best offense and fifth-best defense last season. The Bulldogs boasted not one but two 1,200-yard rushers (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel) back in 2017, when Fromm was a freshman, but they showcased more passing last season — with Fromm ranking as the third-best QB in the nation according to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, trailing only Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.

Georgia does lose five starters apiece on offense and defense from last season, including cornerback Deandre Baker, who won 2018’s Jim Thorpe Award as the country’s top defensive back, and receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley. But Fromm’s return negates one of the biggest factors in an offense’s demise: losing the starting quarterback.

According to data collected from the 2001 through 2017 seasons, a previously average offense that loses five starters including the QB would expect to be about 12 percent less efficient than before. However, if the team retains its signal-caller, it can basically expect to carry on without missing a beat — great news for an offense as strong as UGA’s last season. The same can be said for a defense that loses five starters between seasons; our research says that team can also expect no real drop-off in efficiency between seasons, generally speaking.

And this Georgia team might be better equipped to handle moderate personnel losses than just about any other program. According to 247Sports.com’s Team Talent Composite, which adds up the total value of all the players on a roster based on their high school recruiting ratings, the Bulldogs rank third nationally going into the 2019 season with a score of 961.85 points. That’s effectively no different from last season, when UGA ranked third with a composite score of 963.87. Add in another year of seasoning for Fromm, who ranks as one of the top QB prospects in next spring’s NFL draft, and the fourth-most returning experience of any team in the SEC according to Phil Steele’s calculations, and the talent in Athens should rival that of almost any other team in the nation.

However, one team that still may be running ahead of Georgia in that regard is the same rival that’s been a thorn in the Bulldogs’ side over the past few years: Alabama. The Crimson Tide have scored better than UGA in the Team Talent Composite for five consecutive seasons, and they are also ahead in ESPN’s early season projected FPI right now. It appears Georgia will need another breakthrough to join Clemson and Bama at the very top of the college football mountain, since the gap between Alabama at No. 2 and UGA at No. 3 (5.6 points) is the same as the gap between UGA and No. 10 Oregon.

And that’s to say nothing of the Bulldogs’ crushing schedule strength. With games against Texas A&M and Notre Dame on tap, in addition to a trip to Auburn and what looks like a tougher-than-usual matchup with Florida, all before even potentially reaching the SEC title game for a third-straight season, it’s no surprise that FPI has Georgia’s schedule rated as the fourth-most difficult in the country this year. That’s even tougher than Alabama’s slate (which ranks 22nd), and it’s a big reason why FPI gives Georgia only a 2.7 percent chance of navigating through its regular-season schedule without a loss, while Bama has 15.3 percent chance of doing the same.

But Georgia has also shown these past few seasons that it belongs squarely in the College Football Playoff conversation, even if it does lose a game during the regular season. Remember, in order to blow late leads over Alabama in crushing fashion, you first have to get late leads over Alabama — and the only other team that can say it has done that recently is Clemson. The Bulldogs have proven they can hang with the game’s top programs, and they have the talent to do it again. Now it’s up to Smart, Fromm and company to finally turn that potential into championship results this season.

Footnotes

  1. In Part II, it was Jalen Hurts relieving an injured Tagovailoa, in a role reversal that Hollywood would have laughed at if you’d pitched it in a movie script.

  2. The 1980s can be viewed as the decade that kicked off college football’s true modern era; the Ivy League was moved out of Division I-A in 1982, for instance, while powerhouse programs gained more control over lucrative television revenues, making the sport resemble its professional counterpart more and more.

  3. The latter two of which are computed excluding a team’s first three games of the season, to avoid undue influence from preseason ratings (which are based largely on the previous season).

  4. Counting split titles as half-championships.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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