ATHENS, Ga. — The award-winning leaders of Oklahoma’s high-scoring offense and Georgia’s shut-down defense will be in the spotlight in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl.
That’s just fine with Georgia’s Butkus Award winning linebacker Roquan Smith, even though he says he’ll need help in the marquee matchup with Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Smith is relishing the challenge that could help determine which team advances to the national championship game.
“Definitely. You love challenges like that,” Smith said Monday. “They say to be the best you have to go up against the best. They say he’s the best college football player in America so we’re definitely looking forward to that challenge. We think that will be a great opportunity for us.”
Smith enters the Rose Bowl with the momentum of being named the most valuable player in No. 3 Georgia’s Southeastern Conference championship game win over Auburn. He matched his career high with 13 tackles, recovered two fumbles and had a sack in the 28-7 win.
One week later, Smith became the first Georgia player to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
Smith also had nine tackles, three for losses, in a 38-7 win over Georgia Tech to close the regular season. His speed made him the figurehead of the aggressive Georgia defense that ranks third in the nation with its average of 13.2 points allowed per game.
The Bulldogs haven’t faced an offense which compares with No. 2 Oklahoma’s. The Sooners’ 44.9 points per game rank fourth in the nation.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart downplays the Smith-Mayfield matchup because even the nation’s best linebacker can’t contain Mayfield alone.
“He’s a tremendous asset for us because of his speed,” said Smart of Smith. “But we can’t make this Roquan Smith against Baker Mayfield because that’s not the case.”
Similarly, the Sooners know Smith isn’t the only player to watch on Georgia’s defense.
“Everybody talks about the linebacker that’s such a good player,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley of Smith. “They’ve got some outstanding individual players, but they’re really, really deep and really, really talented. They’re as deep and talented as anybody we’ve played in the three years I’ve been here, without question.”
Smith spent time with Mayfield in Atlanta earlier this month at the college football awards show.
“He’s a phenomenal guy off the field, when I met him in Atlanta,” Smith said. “First-class guy. Takes everything light and has a great personality. On the field, it speaks for itself what he does, he just won the Heisman, and he’s a good guy off the field as well.”
Smart said Smith “has all kinds of assignments” and will be assigned to a gap, a coverage responsibility or a running back in addition to Mayfield, the dual-threat quarterback.
“It’s not as simple as people want to make it seem like: Hey, it’s Roquan against Baker Mayfield,” Smart said. “That’s not what this is. Roquan has to play within our system, and he may end up in a matchup with him sometime. We’ve got other guys we spy with. We’ve got other guys that have to rush and contain the quarterback. … It’s what we do, not necessarily what he does.”
Smith, a first-team All-America selection, was named The Associated Press SEC defensive player of the year. His 113 tackles, including 10 1/2 for loss, 5 1/2 sacks and 17 quarterback pressures lead Georgia.
Among other standouts on the Georgia defense are linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy , safety J.R. Reed and defensive tackle Trenton Thompson.
“They’re the best defense so you can compare them to anybody,” Mayfield said. “They’re in a league of their own. There’s a reason they’re in the playoff and they follow behind that defense. … To say they’re like anybody else would be downplaying how good they are.”
AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Norman, Oklahoma, contributed to this story.