NEW ORLEANS — Big-time programs win big-time games, and that’s exactly what Georgia did on Wednesday night in the Sugar Bowl.
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (12-2) beat No. 7 Baylor (11-3) by a 26-14 count in the highest-ranked matchup of the non-CFP bowl season.
It was a statement win for Kirby Smart. It was the sort of victory that reminded the college football world why the Bulldogs are considered among the nation’s elite.
A loss would have marked UGA’s fifth straight postseason defeat. Instead, a win makes the Bulldogs 8-4 against Top 10 teams under Smart and 5-1 vs Top 25 this season.
Georgia didn’t just show championship resiliency by bouncing back from the 37-10 loss in the SEC Championship Game loss to No. 1 LSU.
More impressively, the Bulldogs secured a top four finish and generated offseason momentum with youth.
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) January 2, 2020
Georgia’s bowl season attrition was well-documented: 12 former starters not in uniform for the New Year’s Six Bowl.
Most notably, three offensive linemen and two All-SEC senior defenders were missing. To boot, go-to receiver Lawrence Cager remained sidelined by injury and star tailback D’Andre Swift was very limited by a shoulder injury.
This was a wounded Bulldogs’ team, to be sure.
Having a handful of players absent for reasons other than injury and NFL workout plans — some for academics, others on account of failed substance tests — created a less-than-ideal perception.
Were players Smart recruited lacking the discipline to stay eligible or simply not accountable to one another? There are personnel issues still to be dealt with and evaluated, to be sure.
But Smart made sure the Sugar Bowl-bound Bulldogs left the negative vibe behind when the team plane took off for New Orleans last week.
“This trip, this team, and this game,” Smart said upon arriving in The Big Easy. “It’s a one game season for us. It’s a new season.”
And, as Freshman of the Year Semifinalist Azeez Ojulari said, “it’s like a new team.”
The Bulldogs had to like what they saw from the likes of Sugar Bowl MVP and freshman WR Georgia Pickens (12 catches, 175 yards, TD) and freshman tailbacks Zamir White (12 carries, 92 yards) and Kenny McIntosh (6 carries, 26 yards).
New offensive line coach Matt Luke energized an offensive line that had just two starters left from the SEC Championship Game 3 1/2 weeks ago.
James Coley — operating at the most second-guessed coaching position in team sports — showed edge and flair that kept Baylor’s proud defense off-balance.
Coley’s third-and-1 pass conversions and flea flicker kept the chains moving and scoreboard lit up to the tune of a 19-0 halftime lead.
That was more than enough for a defense that showed no signs of missing All-SEC war horse Tyler Clark and his 35 career starts on the D-Line, or Thorpe Award finalist J.R. Reed in the secondary.
As good as Georgia’s defense was in 2019 — and it was the best in the SEC — the Bulldogs could and perhaps should be even better in 2020.
Freshman Lewis Cine was impressive at safety, making six stops. Fellow freshmen Ojulari and Travon Walker recorded sacks.
By the end of the night the players missing were all but forgotten, likely feeling great regret after missing out on the latest program-defining victory.
Smart’s program, filled almost exclusively with players he recruited and featuring coordinators he promoted from within, won a battle of Top 10 teams in primetime.
The 2019 slogan was “Do More,” and by winning 12 games and the Sugar Bowl, Smart did just that. Amazingly, he did more with less.
DawgNation Sugar Bowl Game Stories