No. 3 Georgia (12-1) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) at Rose Bowl, Monday, 2:10 p.m.
TV: ESPN. Radio: 710.
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield caused a lot of stress this week. His reported illness had Sooners fans fretting about whether he would play and media members worrying he wouldn’t be able to talk. The unpredictable Mayfield rose from his sickbed Saturday to calm the nerves of both.
Rick Neuheisel, former UCLA quarterback and coach, knows what Mayfield is going through. The day of the 1984 Rose Bowl, Neuheisel came down with food poisoning.
“You’re going to do some soul-searching to what evil things you did in your past to deserve this sort of fate,” Neuheisel said. “I was making deals with God, all sorts of things in my head.”
Neuheisel threw for 298 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-9 victory over Illinois. He is certain Mayfield will be ready to go.
“All he’ll be doing is staring at the rose in the middle of the field and thinking of all the games he watched as a kid wishing he could be there,” Neuheisel said.
“When I saw that rose, I knew I would be OK. It’s like a magic carpet. Your feet don’t even touch the ground.”
Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner, faces his most challenging test. Georgia ranks second nationally in pass defense and fourth in total defense.
Of course, this is the Bulldogs’ toughest test as well. Mayfield leads the nation in passing efficiency (203.8) and is second in yards (4,340) and touchdown passes (41).
There is only one football on the field, but Georgia running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel seem perfectly capable of sharing it.
They are the latest in a line of talented Bulldogs backs, from Herschel Walker to Garrison Hearst to Todd Gurley. Gurley, now with the Rams, dropped by the team hotel this week to visit the two guys who dropped him to fourth on the all-time rushing list.
Chubb has 1,175 yards and is second on Georgia’s all-time list with 4,599 yards. Michel’s 948 yards this season bumped him up to third with 3,359 yards.
“They’re NFL-caliber running backs,” Oklahoma defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. “Nick Chubb is not a guy you’re going to arm tackle. You’ve got to be physical. [Michel] is a guy who can make some ridiculous cuts, like video game cuts.”
Still, Okoronkwo said, “We’ve seen really good backs. We’ve seen really great backs. We’ve seen elusive backs. We’ve seen it all. We’re prepared to play against guys like that.”
Oklahoma defensive players bristled this week when peppered with questions about stopping the powerful Georgia running game. They felt it was calling their toughness into question.
The Bulldogs average 263.5 yards rushing per game. The Sooners allow 144.2 per game.
“Every year, people talk about our defense and how we’re not physical,” Okoronkwo said. “Every year we win. We’re done talking.”
Ah, but they weren’t.
“We like to hear it,” defensive end D.J. Ward said. “It stings, I guess. But we’re happy to go play the game and change the narrative.”
A child shall lead them
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is chasing history. He is trying to become the second true freshman to lead a team to the national championship.
Jamelle Holieway took Oklahoma to the title in 1985 after replacing the injured Troy Aikman in the fourth game. Fromm, too, got his chance through injury.
“If you had told me this season was going to be written this way, I would not have believed you for one minute,” Fromm said.
Fromm earned his teammates’ trust quickly.
“When Jacob got hurt, the first thing Jake said in the huddle was, ‘I love you all, boys, let’s get the ‘W,’ ” guard Isaiah Wynn said.
Still, there were some growing pains.
“At one point during a practice, he told me I had a cornerback coming [on a blitz],” Wynn said. “I turned around and said, ‘I know, I got this.’ ”
Fromm realized the faux pas.
“Isaiah looked at me and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s been here a while’,” Fromm said.
Oklahoma players felt they had a handle on Fromm heading into the game.
“He’s probably going to hand the ball off a lot,” cornerback Jordan Parker said. “But if you’re not careful, he’ll cut your head off.”
Still, Parker said, “He’s a guy I feel will make some bad throws if we get some pressure on him.”
Okoronkwo was tired of hearing about powerful SEC teams this week. He pointed out that the Sooners beat Auburn in the Sugar Bowl last season.
“I don’t know how people forgot so fast,” Okoronkwo said. “When it’s the SEC, we’ve been 4-0 the past four years. Those are the facts.”