ATLANTA — Kirby Smart soaked in the hard-earned cheers in the aftermath of Georgia’s 50-30 SEC Championship Game win over LSU at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday.
“This victory is very satisfying for all those fans who stuck around the whole game, came to Atlanta, and took over Atlanta,” said Smart, who in seven seasons has won two SEC titles and a national championship in running his record to 79-15.
Smart has joined Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban as the only coaches to record back-to-back unbeaten SEC records in consecutive seasons since the league split into divisional play in 1992.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs also have the first 13-0 record in school history, and they accomplished the feat a year after a national championship season that saw them produce a record-15 NFL draft picks including five first-rounders.
“The people within this program, there were never any questions,” Smart said. “They never doubted, from the (season-opening) Oregon game all the way to playing LSU, they were ready to come out here and showcase themselves.
“We started the season in Atlanta, and now we’ve finished this SEC season in Atlanta.”
And now it seems Georgia will return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the CFP Semifinal Peach Bowl on Dec. 31, likely against TCU (12-1) or Ohio State (11-1).
The Bulldogs secured their No. 1 rank by coming up with big plays on Saturday, using Christopher Smith’s 96-yard return off a field goal block in the first quarter to score first, and then built on that momentum to take a 35-10 lead into halftime.
LSU rallied in the third quarter, but a fourth-and-1 stop at the UGA 5-yard line turned away a would-be rally after the Tigers had pulled back within 35-17.
“We came here with a plan to have a connected assault, and we wanted our team to play connected,” Smart said.
“This game represented this season: They played unbelievably well in spurts, unbelievably poor in spurts and answered the bell when they had to.”
Stetson Bennett captured MVP honors wit a 23-of-29 passing performance that netted 274 yards and 4 touchdowns, but the defense surrendered 502 yards passing despite starter Jayden Daniels (ankle) giving way to backup Garrett Nussmeier for the second half.
“We didn’t play real good defensive tonight,” Smart conceded.
But the resiliency that marked this team all season was once again present.
“This has been a different group, and you guys have tried to label them and figure them out,” Smart said. “They are not comprehensible; they do what they have to do.”
Smart made sure his players understood the life-long implications of this game before the opening kickoff.
“I told our kids I don’t want one kid to walk out of our program without a championship ring, and that was about to happen,” said Smart, whose other SEC Championship Game win came in 2017 over Auburn.
“They said enough was enough, and they got them one tonight.”