ATLANTA — Jonathan Ledbetter found his mother in the sea of people. They hugged. Mecole Hardman embraced James Coley, the Georgia receivers coach, and said, “We got one!”
Rodrigo Blankenship, true to quirky kicker form, was the only player who kept his helmet on.
The confetti rained down, as Georgia celebrated its SEC championship. There will be more work to do later. But for now the Bulldogs enjoyed the moment.
“I can’t even say it’s everything I thought it would be — because it’s more,” Georgia outside linebacker Davin Bellamy said.
Georgia had won the program’s first SEC championship in 12 years. The chance is alive to win the program’s first national title in 37 years. And the Bulldogs did it by avenging their lone defeat of the season.
Now it could be told: This past week, the Bulldogs played on a loop the audio of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn exclaiming, “We beat the dog crap out of them, didn’t we?” Malzahn didn’t know he was being recorded, but he was, and the Bulldogs used it.
“We had it in the weight room,” freshman outside linebacker Walter Grant said. “Just to hear that over and over again, that makes you work harder. That much harder to play them. So yeah, that was real motivating.”
The result was a reversal: a 23-point drubbing became a 21-point triumph and vindication.
“This was sweet, man,” Bellamy said. “At the end of that game three weeks ago everybody was upset. But it was a calmness, because we knew we’d see them again. We knew we’d be ready because that team that showed up on that field three weeks ago is not the Georgia Bulldogs.”
This, it’s fair to say, was the Bulldogs: A 21-point win fit in with the rest of their season, when they beat nine other teams by at least 20 points.
“I’ve never been here before, so it’s really just surreal. Everything,” Ledbetter said later in the locker room. “Sharing this moment with my teammates, some of whom I grew up with in Atlanta, just as a young kid, playing football together. It’s just crazy. Words really can’t describe it.”
On the field, quarterback Jake Fromm was surrounded by media members, getting their first chance to interview him. Someone asked him what it’s like to play as a freshman.
“Sometimes I kind of forget I am,” Fromm said.
You guys aren’t done yet, a reporter began saying.
“Not done yet, no sir,” Fromm said.
Trenton Thompson was among those enjoying the free hats and shirts. The junior defensive lineman had a tough start to the year personally, with a medical issue and shoulder surgery that caused him to miss spring practice and withdraw from school. But he re-enrolled and here he is.
“I can’t ask for a better ending,” Thompson said. “I just keep going, play these next games and keep going. If I have an opportunity I’m going to do it again.”
This was a team that realistically had reaching the SEC Championship Game as the goal because it had never gotten there. Then the Bulldogs won the game.
Now that’s over, and they’re still playing for something meaningful.
“We’re just getting started,” senior safety Dominick Sanders said. “We’ve got two more to go.”
Ledbetter was asked if it had hit them that the Bulldogs now have a national championship to play for or at least a playoff game.
“I think the fact that we’ve won the SEC is just now hitting me,” Ledbetter said. “It’s not till after that you realize what you do. You just have to make your memories in the moment, and make yourself legendary.
“I still feel like we’ve got some more legends to create.”