ATLANTA — Georgia coach Kirby Smart told his team the 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game was a “wake-up call” on Saturday afternoon.
The question is, how did the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs fall asleep knowing the sort of threat seven-time national champion coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide posed?
After all, Alabama beat Georgia by this same 41-24 count last season in Tuscaloosa.
The Bulldogs had 13 players back off last season’s team that played the Tide, eight on offense including quarterback Stetson Bennett.
UGA had the more talented, more experienced and healthier team, seemingly having Alabama right where they wanted them.
But Nick Saban made it four in a row over Smart, and the Tide won its seventh straight over the Bulldogs in the series.
The offense was as much to blame as the defense.
Georgia was just 3-of-12 on third-down conversions and managed only one score on three trips inside the Alabama Red Zone in the second half, unable to keep up with the Alabama offense.
Bennett, who had two second-half interceptions in last year’s loss to the Tide, had two more second-half interceptions on Saturday.
Smart did not make a move at the position, however, sticking with the Burlsworth Trophy Award frontrunner.
Alabama’s defense adjusted to account for Bennett’s strengths, limiting him to 11 yards rushing on 7 attempts -- including three sacks -- while attacking his weaknesses, changing up coverages that led to throws into traffic.
Indeed, on the opening drive, Georgia radio analyst and all-time great Eric Zeier said Bennett was fortunate not to have an errant pass picked off by an Alabam defender who had nothing between him and the end zone.
Meanwhile, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner was carving up what had been a historically dominant defense in the regular season.
The Georgia defense, which entered the night leading the nation with 6.9 points per game and 230.9 yards per game allowed, surrendered five touchdowns, three field goals and 536 total yards.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young set SEC Championship game records for most yards passing in the first half (286) and most yards of total offense in a game (460).
The Tide scored on five straight drives, and the UGA offense didn’t do much to help with back-to-back three-and-outs in the midst of Alabama’s massive 24-point second quarter.
Here are three quick takeaways from the Bulldogs’ surprising defeat
Explosive vs. Implosive
Alabama showed Georgia what a truly explosive offense looks like with three plays of 40 yards or more, including a 67-yard touchdown reception from Jameson Williams against broken coverage that sparked the comeback in the second quarter.
Williams, who had 184 yards receiving on 7 catches, added a 55-yard touchdown reception after beating UGA freshman cornerback Kelee Ringo deep.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have just one catch of 40 yards or more in their past five SEC games. George Pickens’ much-anticipated return saw limited success in his second outing, as he had only 2 catches for 41 yards on 5 targets.
Smart lost confidence in his offense to the point he allowed a 5-yard false start to push him into a conservative shell.
Georgia was going for a fourth-and-10 at the Alabama 41, but somehow, a fourth-and-15 seemed too daunting -- even though there was only 7:08 left and the Bulldogs were down 38-24.
Freshman tight end Brock Bowers is one of college football’s greatest players, essentially carrying Bennett and the Bulldogs pass game on his back with an eye-popping 10 catches for 139 yards on 16 targets.
To put that into perspective, the 5 UGA receivers who caught passes on Saturday were targeted 17 times COMBINED.
Bowers’ 18-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was impressive, as he took a short pass and broke three tackles to cut the Alabama lead to 38-24 with 9:24 left.
The Georgia pass game, however, will need to rely on more than a freshman tight end if it is to win a national championship.
Smart has maintained a conservative game plan on offense and defense, having seen Georgia players win their one-on-one battles against opponents throughout a dominant 12-0 campaign.
The play-action pass game has fed off a run game that has been good, but not great, while the defense has been able to get pressure without taking too many chances with aggressive blitzes and coverage.
None of the Georgia backs were able to get into a rhythm, and it showed as the longest run of the night was a 12-yarder by Kenny McIntosh. It’s the second game in a row McIntosh had the longest run despite getting fewer carries than the two seniors who play ahead of him.
Smart has big decisions to make with scheme and personnel before preparing for the CFP Semifinal game, in either the Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl.
That “wake-up call” Smart spoke of applies to himself and his coaching staff, as much as it does to the players.
If this loss to Alabama doesn’t take Smart out of his conservative comfort zone, it’s hard to imagine what will.