Even before the playoff, Kirby Smart’s 2017 Dawgs are a team for the ages

Georgia players celebrate their SEC Championship Game win over the Auburn Tigers Saturday night.

After Auburn’s big win over Georgia three weeks ago, some national college football observers declared that the Dawgs had been exposed as more championship pretender than contender. Closer to home, many of us preferred to believe that UGA’s poor showing in almost every aspect of the Nov. 11 game against the Tigers might be just an anomaly.

The lesson from Saturday’s SEC Championship Game for those who wrote off the Dawgs three weeks ago: Don’t judge a team by one game.

The fact that the conference title was won against that same Auburn team makes this one even sweeter. And, in fact, you could make the case that the Dawgs losing that first game to Gus Malzahn’s Tigers in such humiliating fashion was just the tonic they needed, resulting in a re-dedication and refocusing that paid dividends.

Nick Chubb broke tackles and ran tough in a turnaround from the first time Georgia and Auburn played this season. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

As for Saturday’s game at the Benz, it was pretty obvious which coaching staff made the better use of the earlier experience in preparing for the rematch. It might not have been as close as it was for the first three quarters had it not been for the officiating, which was oppressive, with the throwing of flags (several tossed wrongly) threatening to take over the game.

But, contrary to the earlier meeting of these two teams at Jordan-Hare, this time the Dawgs didn’t make many bad decisions. No, they didn’t play perfect football. But, as Kirby Smart noted, most of their penalties (the ones that were the result of an actual infraction rather than an overzealous official) came about because of aggressive play, rather than just being dumb mistakes.

And, this time, those penalties didn’t derail the Dawgs and weren’t exacerbated by turnovers, while it was Auburn that struggled to get out of its own way. In almost a complete reversal of the first game, the Tigers turned the ball over on fumbles, missed passes and even had a kick blocked.

Of course, another factor in the Dawgs’ win was Auburn star tailback Kerryon Johnson playing injured, but don’t let anyone tell you this game was all about him. He and his teammates were playing what looked like a different bunch of Bulldogs this time — a team that looked more like the imposing Beast of the East we’d seen most of the season.

In the first game, Auburn dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, as Georgia’s offensive line struggled with the Tigers’ tough run defense and awesome pass rush, and, surprisingly, Georgia’s previously stout defensive front was gashed by Johnson and company.

This time, it wasn’t that Auburn suddenly was bad; it wasn’t. Until it wore down toward the end, the Tigers’ defense was still pretty much stopping runs up the middle. But in this game, Georgia simply schemed around its opponent’s strengths. Rather than keep trying futile runs up the middle, the Dawgs came in with a game plan that called for gaining ground on the perimeter by going outside with toss sweeps and end-arounds. Nick Chubb was at his vintage best, breaking tackles with incredibly tough running. And, while Sony Michel missed much of the game with a knee injury, the talented freshman Philly Flash, D’Andre Swift, stepped up big-time, electrifying the UGA-leaning crowd with a 64-yard TD run that provided a tantalizing glimpse of Georgia’s future at tailback.

“I’m so glad I came back,” modest superstar Chubb told CBS’ Allie LaForce after the game, harking back to the decision last winter of some of Georgia’s key players to return for their senior seasons rather than go pro.

Believe me, Nick, Bulldog Nation is glad, too!

Also, while quarterback Jake Fromm was sacked twice on the Dawgs’ first drive of the game, the Georgia offensive line and Jim Chaney’s play-calling adjusted successfully this time against the Auburn defense, allowing the freshman time to make plays through the air. With the running game working, play-action passing opportunities returned, and Chaney and Fromm took advantage with a number of excellent calls.

Roquan Smith was everywhere for the Bulldogs’ defense. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

The Georgia offense may have looked out of sorts early on, but, thanks to the excellent play of the defense, there was time to get on track without Auburn having built an insurmountable lead. Holding the Tigers to just one score all evening marks this as one of the finest Georgia defensive efforts in quite a while.

Most impressive was the play late in the first half where Georgia didn’t even disguise the fact that it was coming with a linebacker blitz and Auburn still couldn’t stop Roquan Smith from sacking Jarrett Stidham. Smith, who rightfully was named SEC Championship MVP, had 13 tackles, 10 of them solo and two of them for losses, plus two fumble recoveries and a sack. And, this time, Georgia not only got after the Auburn QB successfully, it also out-schemed the Tigers offense, mostly shutting down those quick screens to the outside that were so effective the first time around.

As has been the case most of the season, the Dawgs’ rejuvenated special teams also contributed to the victory. After Georgia’s offense had sputtered again to open the second half, Auburn drove to the Georgia 15 before stalling, but looked set to tie the game at 10-all with a field goal — until the Dawgs blocked the kick. That was really the turning point of the game, snuffing out the last true Auburn threat. On top of that, kickers Rodrigo Blankenship and Cameron Nizialek turned in their usual strong performances.

All in all, it’s been quite a year. Georgia only played one close game this season, and it won that one (over Notre Dame). And, even the one bad loss was made up for by Saturday’s successful conclusion of the Dawgs’ Revenge Tour. Plus, as my pal Joel put it after the game: “Looking at Gus’ expressions in the second half was priceless.”

Watching an ebullient Smart dance on the sideline with his players as he got the congratulatory Gatorade shower was pretty cool, too.

The Dawgs already have exceeded many fans expectations for this season. (University of Georgia)

I know expectations for the Dawgs under Smart have been high from the start in many quarters, even after his stumbling start last year, but, just reaching the SEC Championship game was considered the most realistic goal by most fans I talked to before the start of this season, with dreams of greater glory mostly pinned to future seasons.

Instead, this group of Dawgs already have earned their place in the UGA sports pantheon, no matter what happens from here on. As my son put it Saturday night, “I feel like we’re playing with house money now. All I really hoped for was an SEC championship.”

Instead, No. 3 Georgia will head to the granddaddy of postseason games, the Rose Bowl, for the first time since 1942 to face No. 2 Oklahoma (a team the Dawgs never before have played) and Heisman Trophy favorite Baker Mayfield on New Year’s Day for a chance to return to Atlanta on Jan. 8 to play for the national championship.

Unlike with the SEC title, there won’t be any do-overs for the Dawgs from here on. But, this team already has proved itself to be one that you shouldn’t bet against.

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