ATLANTA — The Georgia Bulldogs won, and they’re not done.
That was the battle cry of the sixth-ranked Bulldogs on Saturday after they defeated second-ranked Auburn 28-7 to win their first SEC championship in 12 years and advance to the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history.
Nothing is official until the playoff selection committee announces its four participants for the national semifinals in the selection show on Sunday afternoon. But after the Bulldogs knocked off Auburn in their highly anticipated rematch and won the SEC, the consensus is that Georgia could not possibly be denied a place in the playoffs. Whether that’s as a No. 2, 3 or 4 seed won’t be determined until the Big Ten Championship Game between No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 8 Ohio State is decided late Saturday.
In only their second season under coach Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs improved to 12-1 on the season, winning at least a dozen games in a season for the fourth time in program history. They will next play on New Year’s Day, either in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans or in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
“I’ll tell you what’s special to me, bringing it back to my alma mater is great,” said Smart, a UGA letterman answered the call home in December of 2015. “I was very fortunate to get a coach on the team that won one in 2001. But to see Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Roquan Smith, hugging on the stage in tears because they care about each other so much. That’s why I do this. It’s because of these guys. It’s great to bring it back to Georgia. The Bulldog Nation is certainly starved, but these young men deserve a ton of credit.”
The playoff will be sorted out Sunday. On Saturday, the Bulldogs completed the business they went to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to transact. Playing for the SEC title for the first time since 2012, Georgia scored the final 28 points after falling behind 7-0 quickly to start the game.
The three plays that will be remembered in UGA history all were made by the Bulldogs’ nationally renowned defense.
- On the first play of the fourth quarter, Lorenzo Carter knocked the ball loose from Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson, and linebacker Roquan Smith scooped up the ball and returned it to the Auburn 39. That set up a four-play scoring drive that ended with touchdown and 2-point conversion passes from Jake Fromm to Terry Godwin. That gave Georgia a 21-7 lead with 13:06 to play.
- Early in the third quarter, Georgia’s DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle blocked the 31-yard field-goal attempt of three-time Groza Award finalist Daniel Carlson.
- Two minutes into the second quarter, Davin Bellamy’s sack and strip of quarterback Jarrett Stidham thwarted an Auburn drive that had reached the Georgia 14 and gave the Bulldogs offense a chance to turn the tide. The unit did, driving 84 yards in seven plays to score on Fromm’s TD pass to Isaac Nauta.
Those plays helped keep Georgia perfect in what has been characterized as its Revenge Tour of 2017. The Bulldogs handily beat four teams they lost to in 2016 and now knocked off Auburn. The Tigers beat then-No. 1 Georgia 40-17 on Nov. 11 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, meaning the result Saturday represented a 44-point turnaround.
Auburn’s cause was hurt by the injury to Johnson. The SEC’s leading rusher, who had 233 total yards and a touchdown in the first meeting, injured his right shoulder in the Tigers’ win over Alabama last week and was well under 100 percent Saturday, although he started and played most of the game. Johnson finished with 44 yards on 13 carries.
Georgia made another statement on Saturday, as well: Fromm can throw the ball a little, too. The freshman quarterback from Warner Robins was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter when the Bulldogs turned to running out the clock.
With 77 yards rushing Saturday, Georgia’s Nick Chubb moved into second place among the SEC’s all-time rushers. Only former Bulldogs star Herschel Walker has gained more.
Auburn, which had 488 yards offense in the first meeting, had 259 on Saturday.
It wasn’t as easy as the final score might indicate. Georgia made it tough on itself by committing 7 penalties for 91 yards, including 5 personal fouls. That slowed the Bulldogs’ progress considerably in the early going.
Early on, it looked like the game was going to follow the script from three weeks earlier. Two critical penalties went against Georgia on Auburn’s opening drive and helped the Tigers drive 75 yards and score on Nate Craig-Myers’ 6-yard TD catch. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs couldn’t find much room to roam against the Tigers defense. They managed 28 yards and had to punt twice in the first quarter.
But the game turned in the second quarter. Poised to go ahead 2 scores, Bellamy sacked Stidham and stripped him of the football. Smith recovered at the Georgia 16.
The Bulldogs looked like a different offensive team this time. They got 16 yards from Chubb on first down, Fromm hit Mecole Hardman for 13 yards on third-and-8 and an interference call against Auburn gave Georgia first-and-goal at the 2. A play-action pass from Fromm to Nauta knotted the score at 7-all with 10:14 remaining in the second quarter.
It looked like the Bulldogs had made it to 14-7 when a wide-open Godwin hauled in a pass in the end zone on third-and-goal from the 2. But Georgia was called for a “pick” on the play as receiver Javon Wims made contact with two defenders on a cross route with Godwin. It appeared Wims may have been shoved into the defenders, but the call stood, and the Bulldogs had to settle for a 27-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal and a 10-7 lead with 4:59 remaining in the half.
Penalized 7 times for 75 yards in the first meeting, flags were a factor for Georgia in this game as well. The Bulldogs were whistled 4 times for 46 yards in the first half. A facemask call against cornerback DeAndre Baker nullified his interception late in the half. A sack of Stidham by Smith knocked Auburn out of scoring range.
The half ended with Georgia kneeling out the clock and banking on getting the ball first to open the second half.