Smart and playoff-bound Dawgs have some fixes, decisions to make

Georgia fans react during yet another championship loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

All it took for Alabama to destroy the narrative of Georgia’s trend-defying, unbeatable 2021 defense was one quarter.

For much of this season, as Kirby Smart’s Dawgs rolled over all their previous opponents, thanks in large part to their defensive domination, the old maxim that defense wins championships seemed to be making a comeback.

It’s not that Georgia wasn’t doing well on the other side of the ball, but it was pretty much a given that the Bulldogs’ resilient offense — hit by numerous injuries, including to the starting quarterback midway through the season — wasn’t having to break much of a sweat in racking up those wins, because of their awesome, smothering D.

That was, of course, in direct contrast to the prevailing school of thought adopted by many in college football in recent years — including Bama’s Nick Saban — that the game has evolved to the point where it takes an elite offense to win a championship, particularly a national title.

Specifically, the thinking has been, you have an elite quarterback and receivers to win championships. Even a terrific running attack probably isn’t enough without a high-octane passing game.

Turns out, Saban and Co. were right, as was illustrated dramatically in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Georgia’s defense, statistically the best in 35 years of college football, was shredded by Alabama QB Bryce Young and his speedy receivers.

Yes, there was a bit more to it than that, as Georgia suffered a 41-24 defeat by an Alabama team that the Dawgs were favored over by 6.5 points.

Saturday’s game started slowly, with the teams trading defensive stops, and Georgia led 10-0 after the first play of the second quarter. Then, Young started gashing the Dawgs with big-chunk passing plays.

Bama receiver Jameson Williams scores on a touchdown pass Saturday in the SEC title game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Hyosub Shin, Dawgnation

Georgia had not given up more than 17 points in a game, and opponents were averaging just 6.9 points per game, but, by halftime, the Tide already had scored 24. They added another 17 in the second half, amassing 536 yards of total offense to Georgia’s 449.

Smart’s team perhaps could have survived the humbling of its defense if the Georgia offense had managed to keep pace.

But, while that offense — led for most of the season by a QB who is a former walk-on (a story that television loves) — had proved sufficient against all the rest of Georgia’s opponents, it fell short this time.

One thing’s for sure: If Smart chafed at questions earlier this season about his handling of the quarterback situation, he’s for sure not going to enjoy the postseason “outside noise” (as he calls it) about his team, because the Kirby-doesn’t-know-how-to-manage-quarterbacks meme is back with a vengeance.

Still, at the postgame press conference, when Smart was asked if he might now want to re-evaluate the QB situation, he replied: “I have the utmost confidence in Stetson Bennett. I think he did some really nice things tonight. We go and re-evaluate everything all the time. He played well.”

Bennett didn’t have a bad night statistically — 29-of-48 for 340 yards (all career highs) with 3 TDs — but he threw two costly interceptions and was off target on other passes, one of which also was nearly a pick. There also were too many drives for the Dawgs that ended in punts.

Meanwhile, Bama’s Young probably iced the Heisman Trophy, completing 26 of 44 passes for 421 yards and 3 TDs, including scoring strikes of 67 and 55 yards, and even running for a score. And he did all that while playing the best defense in the nation.

Would previous Dawgs starter JT Daniels have done better than Bennett did? We never got a chance to find out, as, once again, Smart stuck with Bennett for the entire game.

Dawgs quarterback Stetson Bennett is sacked by Alabama’s LaBryan Ray. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Hyosub Shin, Dawgnation

Sure, if you try to look at it from Smart’s point of view, you can kind of, sort of understand his reasoning. Daniels’ relative lack of mobility, compared with Bennett’s running ability, no doubt made Smart feel more comfortable — basically, saying that Bennett’s ability to scramble for the occasional first down outweighs what five-star talent Daniels brought to the team.

Let’s face it, Bennett may be more elusive, but Daniels’ quick release probably would have meant he wouldn’t have been sacked any more than Bennett was, and Daniels generally is the more accurate passer. Plus, he seems to read defenses more quickly than Bennett, who sometimes seemed to underestimate how quick and well-positioned Bama’s defense was. Bennett also still tends to lock in on a receiver who’s double-covered, overlooking another target who’s open.

There’s another factor, too. Frankly, Smart has proved that he’s generally not one to rock the boat when things are going well, as they were during the regular season.

They didn’t go well against, Alabama, however. And maybe, in games where things aren’t going well, it’s time for the man who was mentored by Saban to ask himself WWND? What would Nick do?

If you think Saban wouldn’t have made a quarterback switch at halftime, or at least midway through the third quarter, you weren’t paying attention the last couple of times Georgia and Bama played for championships.

At this point, I should point out that I have not been one of those fans constantly calling for Bennett to be replaced by Daniels as the starter since the latter got healthy again, though I had thought (and hoped) that Daniels would at least get a bit more work than he did once he was ready.

I think Bennett is a good quarterback. And, he was good enough for Georgia to finish its regular season undefeated. But, the Dawgs are in the postseason now, and that’s when, as Smart said after the Clemson game, “You’re elite or you’re not.”

Or, as my niece’s husband put it in a family group text after the game: “You’re either elite at QB or you’re not.”

UGA receiver George Pickens catches a 37-yard pass from Stetson Bennett Saturday. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)Hy
Hyosub Shin, Dawgnation

Another way of saying that is Georgia fan James McCord’s ironic response to a post on my Junkyard Blawg Twitter feed after the game: “Their 5-star QB showed out! Our 5-star QB held a clipboard.”

All of that is true, but Bennett wasn’t the main reason Georgia lost to Bama.

Saturday’s game was very much a team loss. After spending all of the regular season wowing observers, the Dawgs’ defenders suddenly looked rather ordinary when faced with probably the nation’s best quarterback, the two best wide receivers in the country, and the sport’s best head coach.

The number of times Alabama receivers were left completely uncovered Saturday was mindboggling.

What happened? “We changed the coverage up,” Smart said at his postgame press conference, and “had a couple busts … where we left a guy wide open. It wasn’t anything they did different, same route they ran on Auburn, but we played it a different way and didn’t play it correctly.”

Whether that was a result of Georgia defenders simply misunderstanding what they were supposed to do, or a bad decision by coordinator Dan Lanning to “change” the coverage, there’s no denying that, for most a couple of quarters, Georgia looked absolutely helpless against the Alabama passing attack.

They did better in the second half, but the Dawgs’ previously ferocious pass rush never could get to Young, who had been sacked repeatedly the previous week by an inferior Auburn defense.

Smart addressed Georgia’s failure to get pressure on Young at halftime to CBS’ Jamie Erdahl, saying: “You’ve got to get to him, or he’s going to get to you.”

The second half also is when the Dawgs’ offense started sputtering at the worst possible time. You can’t have consecutive three-and-outs and hope to come from behind to beat the Crimson Tide. You just can’t.

In the previous championship losses to Alabama, a strong argument could be made that Smart and his coaching staff took their foot off the gas and tried to sit on a lead against Saban’s Tide — never a smart plan.

Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban meet on the field after the SEC Championship game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)
HYOSUB SHIN / AJC, Dawgnation

In this game, the Dawgs simply were outplayed and outcoached.

High points were few and far between, with most of them coming via freshman tight end Brock Bowers, who set an SEC Championship Game receiving record for a tight end with 10 catches for 139 yards and touchdown.

But, even Bowers had his limitations, as on a play where a Bama defender collided with him in the end zone, causing him to drop the ball.

Receiver Ladd McConkey also had a 32-yard TD catch in the second quarter, when Georgia briefly tied the game at 17-17.

But, here’s a puzzler: After George Pickens, making a miraculous return from spring knee surgery, did a great job snagging deep ball to set up Georgia’s first touchdown, fans were left to wonder why Bennett didn’t go deep to him again during the game.

Overall, it wasn’t a great performance on either side of the ball for the Dawgs, but it’s not like Georgia is completely broken. The defense still is loaded with talent, and, even with the defensive struggles, it’s not like Georgia had no chance to compete offensively with the Tide. Take away the pick-6 (a very bad play on Bennett’s part), the interception that ended a likely scoring drive in the Bama red zone, and that fourth-and-long debacle in the third quarter, and Georgia could have made it much more of a contest.

Also, if the Dawgs had covered Young’s second-quarter fumble, instead of trying to pick it up, allowing the Bama QB to regain control of the ball, that might have proved a turning point.

But, getting zero points out of a pair of long drives deep into Bama territory, and suffering consecutive three-and-outs was too much of a mountain for the Dawgs to climb. “There was a period where we didn’t play well, but there was also a period there where we came back and had a chance to get it to a 7-point game, and we didn’t do that,” Smart noted.

Instead, when the Dawgs’ defense did get relatively quick stops in the second half, and had plenty of time remaining on the clock, Georgia’s offense wasted its resulting possessions.

Looking ahead, Georgia’s 12-1 season fortunately still was deemed College Football Playoff-worthy, and the Dawgs (who dropped from No. 1 to No. 3 after the loss to Bama) will get to meet No. 2 Michigan on New Year’s Eve (I still hate that it’s not on New Year’s Day) in the semifinal game at the Orange Bowl.

Georgia has time to try and fix the flaws that Bama exposed before they meet Michigan. As Smart told ESPN Sunday on the CFP announcement show, “The greatest learning experiences come from losses.”

Georgia’s Xavier Truss (left) and Amarius Mims sit dejected on the sidelines in the final minutes of the Dawgs’ 41-24 loss to Alabama. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

If the Dawgs get past the Wolverines, who overwhelmed Iowa in the Big 10 Championship Game on Saturday (but did lose earlier in the season to rival Michigan State), they probably will face the Tide again in the national championship game Jan. 10 in Indianapolis. (I don’t see Cincinnati knocking off Bama in the other semifinal.)

Asked after the SEC title game what he might do differently if Georgia has to play Alabama again this season, Smart said he’d have to review the tape, but “the first answer would be don’t leave people uncovered, you know what I mean? Like that’s the first objective. Let’s cover them, and then try to win some one-on-ones and get balls down.”

Also, Georgia’s offense needs to be ready to outscore Alabama, because Young and those receivers aren’t going to be stifled.

The difference between Georgia and Alabama is that the Tide has an elite passing game. If the Dawgs were to do whatever is necessary to elevate their own passing game, they might be able to keep up; the Tide’s defense is good, but not great.

If you’re looking for optimism, perhaps this game can be the 2021 equivalent of what happened between Georgia and Auburn in 2017. First, came a brutal loss. Then, in the rematch, the Dawgs flipped the script completely.

Still, the SEC game was very deflating. Georgia was the favorite and yet again failed to deliver versus Bama. And, on top of that, the thoroughness of the Dawgs’ defeat is deeply disappointing.

The defense was exposed, in what Smart called “a wakeup call,” and Georgia’s head coach has to make decision on quarterback, because it’s not clear that Bennett can get it done at the level of football you encounter in the College Football Playoff.

It’s worth noting that the score in Georgia’s regular-season loss to Bama last season, with Bennett as QB, was exactly the same as the score in Georgia’s loss to Bama this season, with Bennett as QB.

As the oft-quoted saying attributed to Albert Einstein goes: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

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