Asked back in the summer what they expected from this season, many Dawgs fans predicted a rebuilding Georgia would win the SEC East again, but probably not be able to repeat as conference champions over expected foe Alabama in Atlanta.
It turned out exactly as we predicted. So, why does this one hurt more than the two previous fourth-quarter losses to the Crimson Tide in championship games?
Maybe it’s because Dawgs fans are beginning to feel like we’re trapped in some sort of “Groundhog Day” endless loop in which Georgia outplays Bama for about three quarters, only to lose after blowing another double-digit lead.
Just like 11 months ago in the National Championship Game, Alabama again was rescued by its backup quarterback — with the ironic twist that the guy doing the rescuing this time was the QB replaced halfway through the previous game.
Pardon me, but, having seen the original “Hollywood ending” for Nick Saban and Co., I found the sequel pretty hard to take.
Bulldog Nation’s collective depression isn’t helped by the word at lunchtime Sunday that the Dawgs won’t be in the College Football Playoff, despite Kirby Smart, Saban and a host of sportscasters and writers declaring after the game that these were two of the four best teams in the country, and Georgia should be in the playoff, even with a second loss. But, that spot went to Oklahoma. (At least Georgia finished ranked ahead of Ohio State!)
Lesson learned: You want to be in the playoff, you need to win your way in with a conference championship (unless your name is Alabama, in which case exceptions are allowed, as was the case last year).
Make no mistake, 11-2 and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl is nothing for Smart’s Bulldogs to hang their heads about, especially considering all the NFL-caliber talent from last year’s national championship runner-up that had to be replaced this season, with the SEC’s youngest starting lineup.
Still, the fact that Bama overcame the largest point deficit in SEC Championship history to win the game rankles. If I have to put my finger on why the Tide was able to pull that off, it comes down to two things:
First, Bama’s third-down defense improved drastically in the second half (helped by some unimaginative play-calling on Georgia’s part). Twice, Georgia failed to convert on third-and-short. Conversely, Georgia’s defense gave up key third-down conversions by Bama in the fourth quarter.
Secondly, besides the play-calling, there were some other questionable choices by the Georgia coaching staff, including the way freshman backup QB Justin Fields was used.
Sophomore starter Jake Fromm was having the game of a lifetime, at one point tying an SEC Championship Game record with 10 straight completions. Bama is tough to run against consistently, but Fromm’s arm was the difference for much of the game. His throw to Riley Ridley for the Dawgs’ fourth touchdown of the night was an incredible piece of precision passing.
And yet, Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney kept inserting Fields clumsily into the game for a single play at a time, to negligible results. Maybe they thought they were playing mind games with the Tide defense, but it plainly wasn’t working, and those ended up being wasted downs.
The worst example: After Bama had tied the score at 28 and Georgia got the ball back with 5:14 on the clock, and needed to answer with a score of their own, Smart got the drive off to a stunted start by again sending in Fields, who ran for a mere yard, instantly putting the Dawgs behind the sticks.
Finally, Fields was inserted one time too many when he badly botched a fake punt. However, the blame for that play, which gave Bama a short field for its go-ahead touchdown, chiefly lies with Georgia’s head coach, who made the boneheaded call and then defiantly defended the indefensible (rather unconvincingly) after the game.
Smart’s reasoning for calling for a fake punt with fourth-and-11 at midfield with 3:04 to play was that he “wanted to be aggressive. Look, I wasn’t coming here to play to tie, to play to keep it close. We came here to win the game.”
It was a high-risk gamble apparently based on the Georgia defense looking gassed in the fourth quarter and a Bama tendency to leave a player uncovered when they are in “safe” punt formation. Unfortunately, Fields took too long to get the snap off and the Tide spotted him, knew a fake was coming, and adjusted.
The wise thing would have been for Smart to call time out, abort the fake, and go with a punt, but he didn’t do it. After a full season, Fields still hasn’t learned to look through all his receiver progressions, so, when he saw his primary receiver covered, he panicked and pulled the ball down to run, like he always does, missing the fact that he had another player open. Result: a 2-yard loss, and Bama taking over with great field position.
Smart’s latest miscalculation on a fake kicking play (Georgia’s third unsuccessful one this season) was one of the dumbest calls I’ve seen since Mark Richt’s infamous squib kick decision.
As my brother Tim put it: “We outcoached ourselves. Whoever puts the fakes into Kirby’s head needs to be fired.”
Overall, it was the worst game in a couple of seasons for Georgia’s special teams, which were supposed to be the lone area where the Dawgs held an advantage over the Tide.
Mecole Hardman did have a 22-yard kickoff return and a 16-yard punt return, but the Dawgs failed twice to down punts near the Bama goal line, Rodrigo Blankenship missed a chip-shot field goal that would have put the Dawgs up 31-14 in the third quarter (probably the turning point in the game), Georgia gave up a 36-yard punt return, and Brian Herrien botched a kickoff reception, forcing the Dawgs to start a drive at their own 6-yard line.
I thought looking at the game’s stats might make me feel better about the loss to Bama. After all, Georgia racked up 454 yards of offense against the vaunted Tide defense (301 passing, 153 rushing) and possessed the ball 35:30 to Alabama’s 24:30. In the second quarter, the Dawgs held the ball a whopping 12:05 to Bama’s 2:55.
D’Andre Swift had another great game, carrying 13 times for 66 yards and a touchdown against a stifling Tide rushing defense, and had a team-high six catches for 63 yards and another TD. Elijah Holyfield also had 60 yards on 14 carries. Tight end Isaac Nauta, who scored Georgia’s first touchdown, had four catches for 81 yards, including a career-long 55-yard reception. Ridley caught 4 passes for 48 yards, including that terrific TD reception.
Defensively, Georgia may have faltered in the fourth quarter after dual threat Jalen Hurts replaced an injured Tua Tagovailoa, but overall the Dawgs forced four Bama three-and-outs, sacked Tagovailoa twice, and senior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker was a one-man wrecking crew, with five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a batted ball and two tackles for loss. Georgia also took away two passes from the rarely-intercepted Tagovailoa, with key picks by safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte.
The officiating was hit-or-miss, with the crew mostly adhering to a let-’em-play philosophy. Unfortunately, that included a blatant instance of pass interference by a Bama defender that went uncalled on Georgia’s final desperation drive.
In the end, reading Georgia’s stat sheet didn’t help improve my mood. It simply reinforced the notion that this was a game the Dawgs should have won. As Saban said after the game, Georgia “certainly had us on the ropes today.” Instead, the Dawgs once again choked down the stretch against the Crimson Tide.
Asked at his post-game press conference how that made him feel, Smart replied: “Sick. We’ve got to play better in the fourth quarter. That’s a big thing for us. … We couldn’t close the deal. I don’t know what that is. We’re going to figure it out, though. I can promise you that.”
We’re going to hold you to that promise, Kirby.
What about your reaction to Georgia’s latest faceplant against Bama? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the championship game, and on the season to date. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or feel free to comment below.