In business, an unofficially acknowledged barrier to advancement is referred to as a “glass ceiling” — you’re close enough that you can see the top, and many think you’re good enough to reach it, but there’s just something preventing you from getting there.
When it comes to the top of the college football world, Alabama has come to represent Georgia’s glass ceiling. As has happened all too frequently during the Kirby Smart era, the Dawgs showed that they could keep pace with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide for a couple of quarters Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, even leading at halftime, but they couldn’t keep it up for an entire game.
The reason this time around was twofold: Both Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, up to now one of football’s feel-good stories of the year, and the Dawgs’ defense, which came into the game as the best in the SEC and one of the best in the nation, appeared to hit their own ceilings Saturday as Bama QB Mac Jones threw for 417 yards and four TDs.
The Dawgs’ defenders didn’t suddenly forget how to play in the second half of Saturday’s Top 5 showdown, billed by CBS as “the game of the year, so far,” but there’s only so much it could do to hold in check the nation’s most prolific offense, which came in averaging a whopping 51 points a game. Meanwhile, Georgia’s offense wasn’t able to maintain possession and keep pace with the Tide on the scoreboard.
This Alabama team is loaded offensively, and it is going to score points. Georgia may have kept the Tide below their average in the 41-24 game, but the only way you even stand a chance of beating the Tide is to get some points every time you get the ball. That wasn’t the case Saturday night, as Bama shut the Dawgs out, 21-0, in the second half, after trailing Georgia 24-20 at the half.
And, unfortunately, the play of Georgia’s quarterback was a big factor in the Dawgs’ second-half offensive impotence.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Bennett. The former walk-on, who transferred away from UGA to get playing experience at a junior college and then was lured back to UGA with a scholarship to back up Jake Fromm last year, is the kind of story ESPN loves, as you could see in the broad smile Rece Davis had on his face Saturday morning after the Georgia QB’s tale was told in one of those soft and fuzzy features “GameDay” loves.
Bennett’s steady and heady play since ascending unexpectedly to the starting quarterback position midway through the first game of the season is the reason Georgia came into Saturday’s prime-time matchup undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the nation (to Bama’s No. 2).
But, the cold, hard truth is that you don’t beat a behemoth like Bama with a quarterback who’s a former two-star prospect, especially one who’s having a bit of an off night.
Part of that, of course, was due to a tremendous game plan by Alabama’s previously suspect defense, which recognized that the diminutive (by football standards) Bennett’s lack of height presented an opportunity for blocking his passing lanes up front. The Tide’s big defensive linemen seemed less interested in sacking Bennett than in getting their hands up and deflecting his passes over the middle, where he’d previously been pretty deadly. And they batted down five of Benett’s throws at the line of scrimmage Saturday.
SBIV also didn’t help matters with some uncharacteristically poor decision-making. Too often, Saturday, it didn’t look like the Georgia QB was running through his pass route progressions or seeing the entire field, trying to complete passes to receivers who were in double or triple coverage while overlooking other targets that were uncovered.
But, mainly, he was, like his team, bumping up against his ceiling, meaning his physical limitations. He’s not big enough, and he doesn’t appear to have enough arm strength or touch on long passes to compensate. “He had a lot of balls batted,” as Smart noted in his post-game locker room chat with Chuck Dowdle on the Bulldogs’ radio network. There also were some passes dropped by Georgia receivers, though, admittedly, a couple not entirely on target. And, several times Bennett had wide-open receivers, only to overthrow them by several yards.
It would have helped, certainly, had offensive coordinator Todd Monken rolled Bennett out more, or shifted the pocket, or done something to give his quarterback a clearer view of the field. Also, Monken’s tendency Saturday night to abandon the running game at times, despite some success in that area (Georgia averaged 4.8 yards per carry to Bama’s 3.4), was puzzling. You don’t beat Bama without a sustained ground attack to open up your passing game.
Speaking of Bennett to the media after the game, Smart said, “We’ve got to help him with the run game around him, because we can’t throw the ball that many times and hope to be effective.”
Still, as Smart told Dowdle, “the backbreaker” in the game was turning the ball over, with Bennett throwing three interceptions, the last of which came on a play where he was scrambling, and should have thrown the ball away, but instead lofted it out to an area where no one but a Bama defender could catch it, and which the Georgia QB himself labeled “just a boneheaded play.”
Bennett finished the evening completing 18-of-40 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns and three picks. He had his shining moments, including an 82-yard touchdown throw to tailback James Cook, but none of them was in the second half, when the Dawgs’ offense seemed to run out of inspiration while the defense was running out of gas.
Do I think Georgia will reopen its quarterback competition during the upcoming off week? I doubt it. If the Dawgs had a QB on the bench who was demonstrably better than Bennett, we’d have seen him by now. I think Bennett may be the best Georgia has at this point, and, in fact, he’s probably good enough to beat eight, maybe nine, of the opponents on the Dawgs’ 2020 all-conference schedule.
Talking about his quarterback to the media after the game, Smart put it this way: “When the level of competition changes, you don’t change your evaluation. You just have to grow and get better. The experience he gained tonight will be invaluable for him for the rest of the run. He’s a work in progress, just like our team is.”
And, it wasn’t all about offensive mistakes or Bennett’s play, as Smart said after the game. “We didn’t play good defense, either.”
Georgia’s defense already had shown a tendency to give up explosive plays, and they unfortunately did that way too often Saturday, with the most glaring example being the 90-yard touchdown pass they allowed in the second half, where crossing patterns confused the secondary, and Georgia defender Tyson Campbell fell down.
It appeared the Dawgs’ secondary, as good as it’s generally been this season, bumped up against its own ceiling Saturday night, struggling to find a way to cover a pair of NFL-worthy receivers without holding them (and one of those penalties for holding led to a Bama TD).
Bama’s DeVonta Smith ended up with 167 yards of receiving and 2 TDs while Jaylen Waddle burned Georgia for 161 yards and a touchdown. John Metchie also had 50 yards of receiving and another TD.
Part of the problem was, the officiating team for Saturday’s game didn’t cotton to the sort of handsy defensive play Smart and his defensive staff teach; they seemed to be of a mind to call every infraction Georgia’s defenders even came close to committing, which probably contributed to a terrible pass interference call.
Of course, conversely, they didn’t seem to mind the similarly handsy play of Bama’s offensive line, letting the Tide get away with lots of holding all night long.
But, honestly, the inconsistent officiating (a norm when you play Bama) wasn’t the reason Georgia lost to Alabama this time around.
The Tide is a really good team, especially on offense, and Georgia’s blitzing defense never really managed to rattle Jones, who set a school record Saturday with his third straight 400-yard passing game.
That’s why Georgia lost to Bama, yet again.
“They have great skill players, and I thought we contained them early. The second half we couldn’t do it. Give their coaches credit. They outcoached us,” Smart said.
Looking ahead, he said, “all we can do is learn from it and get better.”
It’s worth noting, as the CBS crew did Saturday night, that a loss in this game wasn’t likely to derail either team, and the expectation of many is that we’ll see Georgia and Alabama facing off again in the SEC Championship Game. Of course, that likely will require Georgia to win out, including beating Florida, another team with a suspect defense but a high-powered offense.
Still, as a resilient Bennett noted after the game, “Our destiny is still controlled by us, which is how we want it. … everything we want is still ahead of us.”
And there’s another thing worth noting about glass ceilings: They can be broken.