NEW ORLEANS — Baylor coach Matt Rhule might be the hottest NFL coaching candidate out there, but on Wednesday night the Bears ran into a buzzsaw.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart had the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (12-2) ready to play, and the result was a 26-14 Georgia victory over the No. 7-ranked Bears (11-3).
“As I told our team, I think we saw a team that played last year, didn’t win the game, came back and found a way to get it done,” said Rhule, who has reportedly had NFL overtures from Carolina, Cleveland and New York . “A lot of credit to Coach [Kirby] Smart, got his team ready to play.”
Some wondered if Smart could pull it off with three starting offensive linemen missing, two of the top three receivers sidelined by injury, tailback D’Andre Swift extremely limited and two All-SEC defenders out.
But Smart challenged and confronted his team before they left Athens, ensuring that those who signed up for the trip would play to the Georgia standard.
The Bulldogs finished 5-1 against Top 25 teams and sent the senior class out with three straight wins over rivals Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech, and a program-tying 44 wins.
It was another marquee win for quarterback Jake Fromm, too, as he expertly managed UGA against the only defense in the nation that had 30 takeaways and more than 40 sacks (46).
Fromm certainly proved his efficiency when having a receiver that could get open. The junior was 20-of-30 passing for 250 yards and 2 touchdowns with no turnovers.
Freshman receiver George Pickens was the Sugar Bowl MVP, tying a UGA bowl record with 12 catches that led to 175 yards and a touchdown.
Rhule pointed to a clever James Coley play call as having the greatest impact on the Big 12’s top scoring defense.
Georgia faced a first-and-10 at its own 40-yard line in a scoreless game when Coley reached into his bag of tricks. Neither team had been able to generate points on its first three possessions.
The Bulldogs trotted out D’Andre Swift and handed the ball off, and Swift pivoted and tossed it back to Fromm.
Fromm, in turn, threw 46 yards downfield for Pickens. It proved to be the longest play of the game, and it set up the first score of the game, a Rodrigo Blankenship field goal.
It also affected the Baylor defense, Rhule said.
“I’m not sure exactly how they did it, but hard, hard play action, got behind us,” Rhule said. “That spooked us out of some of our stuff. Gave them some free access plays.
“Thought they made great plays. Third and one, man coverage, they threw it out and made the play. We zero blitzed. They found him.”
“Him” was Pickens, who did most of his damage in the first half as Georgia built a 19-0 halftime lead behind Fromm’s red-hot passing, 14-of-18 for 190 yards and the two TD passes through the first 30 minutes.
“(Pickens) is a really good player,” Rhule said. “When we left him one‑on‑one, he made the plays. When we played off him a little bit, they threw it out there and he made guys miss. That had been their M.O. coming into it, was to get the ball to him.”
And then defensively, UGA held Baylor to a season-low 14 points and 295 total yards. It was well below their season averages of 35.2 points and 431.2 yards per game.
“They don’t give you anything for free,” Rhule said. “Other than LSU, no one scored more than 20 points on them.”
Smart said his defense played inspired and his offense was efficient. The result denied Baylor what would have been a program-record 12th win and left the celebrated Rhule impressed.
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