The disappointing loss to Alabama notwithstanding — and no matter how the playoff turns out — the 2021 Dawgs have had a great season.
While it’s a sad fact of life that the freshest memory frequently colors our overall view of things, fans shouldn’t let the SEC Championship Game loss detract from the fact that Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs overcame an incredible number of injuries (and personnel losses at key positions) to spend much of the fall as the No. 1 team in the land, finishing with a 12-0 record in the regular season.
Yes, the glass wasn’t just half full, it was sloshing over at times. And, of course, there’s still the matter of the College Football Playoff. If the Dawgs can shrug off the loss to Bama and win two more games, one of them possibly against that same Crimson Tide team, this most certainly will be hailed as the best UGA football season in at least 41 years, and that loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will shrink in significance.
But, regardless of what happens in the playoff, there was much for Bulldog Nation to celebrate and savor in a season that saw the Dawgs beat Clemson, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee in the same season for the first time since 1980, for Smart to be named SEC Coach of the Year, for record-setting tight end Brock Bowers to be named SEC Freshman of the Year, for All-American nose guard Jordan Davis to win Chuck Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy, and for All-American Nakobe Dean to become the second Bulldog ever to win the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best collegiate linebacker.
And, don’t let anyone tell you that the loss to Bama shows that Georgia cruised to its undefeated regular season on the basis of a “soft” schedule. Week after week, the Dawgs faced ranked opponents that came into their game against Georgia considered one of the “hottest” teams in the country, only to find themselves on the losing end of a lopsided final score.
Butkus Award winner Nakobe Dean returns an interception for a TD in Jacksonville. (Rob Dean/UGA)
From the slobber-knocker 10-3 triumph over the then-No. 2 Clemson Tigers through the 45-0 domination of traditional rival Georgia Tech, the Dawgs, featuring the nation’s stingiest defense and an offense that was surprisingly explosive, despite numerous injuries (including to most of the receiving corps and the starting quarterback), gave us many memorable moments.
Quite a few of them were courtesy of Bowers, easily the season’s breakout star for the Dawgs.
In a year when Georgia’s offensive brain trust rediscovered the tight end position for more than just blocking, Bowers wound up as the Bulldogs’ leading receiver. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound freshman from Napa, California, was impressive right out of the gate, showing great hands, explosive speed and remarkable strength. He set a record for Georgia tight ends with 47 catches for 791 yards (an average of 16.8 yards per catch). He’s had four 100-yard receiving games so far in 2021, and is tied (with wide receiver Terrence Edwards) for the school record for touchdown receptions in a season, with 11.
Bowers also provided some of the most impressive and athletic plays of the season.
I asked several UGA fans for their favorite 2021 Dawgs plays, and just about everyone started out by citing a play by Bowers or, as my brother Jon put it: “Any play with Bowers.”
James Cook celebrates a score in the win over the Vols in Knoxville. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
It’s tough to narrow down his best work, but it has to include the play in the Missouri game where he caught a short pass in tight coverage near the sideline, stiff-armed a defensive back and rambled for a 23-yard gain.
The two best Bowers plays? My personal favorite came in the Tech game, when he caught a simple slant pass over the middle and proceeded to outrun the entire Jackets secondary as he raced 77 yards between the hashmarks for a score.
However, my brother Tim, noting that Tech isn’t the most athletic of Georgia’s opponents, was more impressed by the 18-yard TD pass Bowers caught in the fourth quarter against Bama, where he bulldozed his way for a touchdown, breaking three tackles on his way across the goal line. Even in that loss, Bowers shone, setting an SEC Championship Game receiving record for a tight end with 10 catches for 139 yards and the TD. My friend CP thinks Bowers looks like “a second coming of Travis Kelce.”
Bowers’ freshman success wasn’t really a surprise, since he came to Athens as one of the nation’s top-rated tight end prospects. But another standout receiver for the Dawgs in 2021 did seemingly come out of nowhere: redshirt freshman wide receiver Ladd McConkey, who got his chance because of all those injuries to Georgia’s WRs.
Defensive lineman Jordan Davis is congratulated after scoring against Charleston Southern. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
McConkey has played in all 13 games thus far (starting seven of them) and has snagged 28 catches (second-best on the team) for 430 yards and 5 TDs. He led Dawgs receivers in the Auburn game with 5 catches for 135 yards, including a 60-yarder that probably was the best ball quarterback Stetson Bennett threw all season. What made McConkey’s performance even more amazing was that he normally is a slot receiver, but he switched over to play flanker that game because usual starter Jermaine Burton was hurt.
By the way, both Bowers and McConkey also had rushing touchdowns, with each of them taking a handoff on sweep plays against Vanderbilt, and scoring.
Some other notable memories from the season:
• defensive back Christopher Smith’s 74-yard return of an interception late in the second quarter of the Clemson game in Charlotte.
Receiver Ladd McConkey scores in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
• the amazing 8-yard run by tailback Zamir White in the Arkansas game, during which the fan favorite known as Zeus showed incredible effort in managing to keep his balance (testing his surgically repaired knees to the max). Over the course of the season, White became Georgia’s go-to back when the other team knows the Dawgs are going to run, and he’s shown vision, patience and toughness.
• the Georgia blitz on one Auburn third-down play, where linebacker Quay Walker shot up the middle and dropped Tigers QB Bo Nix for a 15-yard loss. It was a thing of beauty.
• the play where the Dawgs faced fourth-and-6 at the Missouri 35 when Bennett unleashed a high throw to the left side of the end zone, where receiver Arian Smith ran underneath it and made an incredible over-the-shoulder catch, just inside the boundary.
• tailback James Cook having a career day in the game against Tennessee in Knoxville, running for 104 yards on 10 carries, and accounting for three of the Bulldogs’ four touchdowns — two on runs and one on a 23-yard pass from Bennett. On his touchdown reception against the Vols, Cook ran past a defender to get wide open, and Bennett hit him over the shoulder in the back corner of the end zone with a perfectly thrown pass. (Overall, it’s tough to pick a favorite play from that day, but old-school Dawgs fans got a particular thrill out of the fourth-quarter touchdown scored by Cook on a toss sweep out of the I-formation with fellow White leading the way as a blocking fullback.)
• Bennett’s running ability, which is the reason Smart has kept him as the starting QB even after original starter JT Daniels recovered from injury. Bennett is the team’s fourth-leading rusher, with 251 yards, including runs of 30 and 20 yards, as well as a key 9-yard TD scramble vs. Tennessee.
Georgia linebacker Robert Beal sacks Auburn QB Bo Nix. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
• team defensive leader Davis being rewarded by getting to take the handoff and lunge over the goal line for a rushing TD on Senior Day (and then getting to direct the Redcoat Band after the game).
• showing amazing speed for someone 6-foot-6 and weighing 340 (or more) pounds, Davis running down Alabama-Birmingham quarterback Tyler Johnson.
• the special teams plays this season in which Georgia blocked punts, field goal attempts and one PAT.
• the 35-0 lead the Dawgs jumped out to in the first quarter, on the way to a 62-0 demolishing of Vandy. That included 2 TDs each for Bowers and McConkey and another for White.
• the series where Mizzou tried to pull a Kentucky and drive for a late, meaningless score against the Dawgs’ defensive subs, including calling 2 timeouts in the final 23 seconds of the game in an effort to get into the end zone. Georgia nixed that, thanks chiefly to a great pass breakup by defensive back William Poole.
Zamir White outruns Kentucky defenders for a score. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
• celebrated wide receiver George Pickens, out all season while recovering from a knee injury, catching a 5-yard pass against Tech, and getting a big roar from a Grant Field crowd in which UGA fans outnumbered the home team’s supporters by about 2-to-1.
• and, perhaps best of all, the 2-minute sequence late in the second quarter against the Gators in Jacksonville, in which the Dawgs forced three consecutive turnovers and scored touchdowns off all three, to make the halftime score 24-3. That included Georgia defender Nolan Smith stripping the ball from Florida QB Anthony Richardson deep in Gators territory; Travon Walker tipping a Florida pass that Smith picked off; and Dean stepping in front of a Richardson pass for a pick-6.
Beating the Gators always is sweet, but giving them false hope with a slow start, and then snatching it away — bam, bam, bam! — was a high point of an overall great season.
And, there’s at least one game, hopefully two, still to be played. So, there likely will be more opportunities for the Dawgs to make this a season for the ages.