Report card: Imperfectly excellent Bulldogs roll to SEC championship
ATLANTA — There was nothing controversial or debatable about the rooftop of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday night. It worked just like it was supposed to — and was was ablaze in Georgia red at the end of the Bulldogs’ 28-7 win over Auburn Saturday night.
That’s the plan for the new home of the SEC Championship Game, to light up its dome in the colors of the conquering team. And there was no debating who that was as Georgia (12-1) rolled to its 13th SEC title in football and first since 2005. The 13 titles are the second-most in the conference behind Alabama (26) and tied with Tennessee.
The Bulldogs’ championship came in the second year of coach Kirby Smart’s tenure and should move them into the final four for the College Football Playoff. If that happens, Georgia will make the national semifinals for the first time in school history and will play in either the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans or the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The Bulldogs haven’t played in the Rose Bowl since Jan. 1, 1943, when they won the national championship.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s special bringing [the SEC title] back to my alma mater,” Smart said. “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. So it’s great to bring it back to Georgia. The Bulldog Nation is certainly starved. These young men deserve a lot of credit.”
The victory gave No. 6 Georgia at last 12 wins for the fourth time in school history and avenged a 40-17 loss to Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium just three weeks ago.
The Bulldogs weren’t perfect and actually had not played particularly well in the first half despite holding a 10-7 lead. But Georgia broke free with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Here’s how they graded out:
Georgia ground out 421 hard-fought yards and did it in a well-balanced way, with 238 yards rushing and 183 passing. Freshmen led the way for the Bulldogs, as quarterback Jake Fromm threw for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns and D’Andre Swift ran for 88 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Chubb became the No. 2 career rusher in the SEC history with 77 yards on the ground, as well. He now has 4,599 yards. Terry Godwin was Georgia’s leading receiver with 5 catches for 48 yards and caught a pass for a touchdown, while adding a catch for a 2-point conversion. He could have had another TD had officials not nullified it, claiming an illegal pick play. Mecole Hardman added 4 catches for 67 yards and tight end Isaac Nauta caught Fromm’s other TD pass.
The Bulldogs entered the game ranked fifth in the nation in scoring defense (13.8 points per game) and only improved on that by limiting Auburn to 33 fewer points than it scored on them just three weeks earlier. After the Tigers drove the length of the field to score to open the game, they managed just 61 yards in their next 22 plays and failed to score again in their next 10 possessions.
Linebacker Roquan Smith improved his stock as a Butkus Award finalist by recording a game-best 13 tackles in the game and being named MVP of the SEC championship. Smith also recovered both of Auburn’s fumbles, which were caused by outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, and had a sack and 2 tackles for loss.
Special teams: A
Georgia defensive tackle DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle got a hand up to block the 31-yard field goal attempt of three-time Lou Groza Award semifinalist Daniel Carlson midway through the third quarter. Dominick Sanders scooped the ball up and returned it 12 yards. That proved to be the game-changing play that allowed the Bulldogs to hang on to their precarious 10-7 lead, but more importantly to flip the momentum in the highly-charged atmosphere to their side of the field.
Rodrigo Blankenship also was good on both of his field goal attempts of 27 and 35 yards and added to his school-record total of touchbacks with 5 more. Cameron Nizalek averaged 44 yards on 4 punts, but did have a touchback and the Bulldogs had only 3 yards combined in all kick returns.
This may seem a quibbling grade for Smart and his staff considering their excellent overall work. But there had to be somewhere or someone to account for all the mistakes during Saturday’s game.
There can be no coach anywhere who preaches more to his players about playing and acting disciplined on the football field. That was especially emphasized by Smart this past week as sought to eliminate and atone for all the penalties Georgia committed in its first meeting with Auburn (7 for 75 yards). Not only did the Bulldogs not do that, they actually were flagged five times for personal fouls — one more than last time — and committed just as many penalties and had 91 yards marked off against them. Smart also passed on the opportunity to have Auburn re-punt when it was flagged late in the first half.
What else can you say about these 2017 Bulldogs? How about this: They improved to 5-0 in what is being called their “Revenge Tour.” Georgia avenged 2016 losses to four teams in the regular season and then it beat Auburn by 21 points on Saturday, three weeks after losing to the Tigers by 23 in the regular season.
Everything is possible for this team now as it enters the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs likely will be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed and will play in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1943. Their first national championship since 1980 is now in reach.