Saturday night’s game in Atlanta was emblematic of the Dawgs’ 2023 season.

Once again, Georgia got off to a slow start and allowed its opponent to score first; injuries meant the Dawgs weren’t at full strength, especially on offense; and the run defense was vulnerable on the edges and had trouble handling a running quarterback.

And yet Kirby Smart’s No. 1-ranked Bulldogs remain undefeated after a 31-23 win over in-state rival Georgia Tech, setting a new SEC record with their 29th consecutive victory and finishing with an unblemished regular-season record for the third year in a row.

That’s a remarkable achievement, but after the game, when he was asked by ABC’s Molly McGrath what his team needs to improve as they head into another SEC Championship Game showdown with Alabama, Smart had a succinct answer: “A lot.”

Dawgs running back Kendall Milton had a big night against the Jackets. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

Smart had warned before the game that “you need to be at your best” in a rivalry game, and after having exceptional performances the previous two weeks at home against Ole Miss and in Knoxville against Tennessee, his Dawgs looked less than super on a chilly, breezy night in the ATL.

Under new coach Brent Key, the Jackets no longer are the big-talk-but-poor-play doormat of the Geoff Collins era, and they made the Dawgs work for their sixth straight Governor’s Cup win and 12th consecutive victory at Grant Field.

Using a lot of misdirection, the running ability of quarterback Haynes King (a Texas A&M transfer) and lots of runs on the perimeter, Tech repeatedly gashed the young Georgia defense, which still was missing injured field general Jamon “Pop” Dumas Johnson. Jackets Offensive Coordinator Buster Faulkner, a former quality control assistant for UGA quarterbacks, had a great game plan, targeting weaknesses that the Dawgs’ defense has shown against Auburn and Missouri earlier this season.

Tech had a 108-86 advantage in total offensive yardage and about a 5-minute advantage in time of possession after the first quarter of play.

Unfortunately for Tech, Georgia’s D remained strong on third downs (the Jackets converted only 2 of 12 third downs, though they made 2 of 3 fourth-down tries). The Dawgs also forced their in-state rivals to settle for field goals on three drives. The leading Georgia tacklers were C.J. Allen and Smael Mondon, with 8 apiece. Georgia also got 2 sacks.

Quarterback Carson Beck gets past Tech linebacker Braelen Oliver (4) at Grant Field. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

On the other side of the ball, Dawgs QB Carson Beck was limited by having three of his primary targets — tight end Brock Bowers and wide receivers Ladd McConkey and Rara Thomas — sitting this one out (along with right guard Tate Ratledge). Smart denied the gimpy players were held out in order to get fit for the upcoming title tilt with Bama and said they would have played had they been able.

After putting up Heisman-worthy numbers in recent games, Beck had a relatively quiet night, completing 13 of 20 passes (a season low) for 175 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. That ended the Georgia QB’s streak of 250-yard passing games at 11.

It wasn’t Beck’s sharpest performance, either, with him misfiring badly on a couple of throws, including missing a wide-open Dillon Bell.

The interception came on a deflected pass that Beck tried to force into coverage in the end zone. Another Beck pass initially was ruled an interception until video review showed it hit the ground first.

Daijun Edwards scores a touchdown during the first half of Saturday’s game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC) (Hyosub Shin/Dawgnation)

Georgia also benefited from video review when a pass-interference call was negated because the errant ball had been tipped. However, the video review official ruled against Georgia on another play, with a key Bell third-down reception negated when it was determined he did not control the ball fully as he went out of bounds.

It was not a great night in turnovers for Georgia, which also lost a fumble on its first play from scrimmage, setting up Tech’s initial score.

On the plus side, Beck expertly hit an open Dominic Lovett on a 29-yard slot-fade pass for Georgia’s first touchdown and made a great read on a play where the Jackets had a busted coverage, throwing a screen pass to Daijun Edwards for 26 yards on a 3rd-and-11 play. The Dawgs’ QB also ran to convert a couple of third downs.

Lovett caught 5 passes for 68 yards and the TD, while Bell caught 3 for 37 and also had a 29-yard gain on a well-executed end-around play.

Georgia had a tough time with Tech QB Haynes King, seen here running for a TD. (Hyosub Shin/AJC) (Hyosub Shin/Dawgnation)

Also, fortunately for the Dawgs, Tech’s defense isn’t nearly as far along as its offense (particularly against the run), and Georgia’s offensive line had a good game. The result was another big game for Dawgs tailback Kendall Milton, who gashed the Jackets for 156 yards on 18 carries (career bests for him) and scored 2 touchdowns. Milton showed good speed and great awareness, as when he sidestepped a blitzing Jacket on one big gain.

Also, Georgia’s margin of victory would have been a bit more comfortable had it not been for some sloppy play and poor tackling.

Of course, another factor was an ACC officiating crew that at times seemed to be trying its best to keep the Jackets in the game. The guys in stripes redefined the facemask rule to include a hand sliding over the top of a helmet as an infraction, ruled that a running QB being tackled to the ground was unnecessary roughness, and made a bogus ineligible-receiver call on a Georgia lineman to wipe out a Bulldogs touchdown.

The Dawgs entered the game one of the least-penalized teams in the country, but the ACC crew threw 6 flags against them for 60 yards, including on a couple of crucial plays. Asked about the officiating after the game, Smart said: “It’s one of those [things] where we go to a different conference, and they have different standards. We evaluate every crew that we get, and their crew had more penalties than any SEC crew going into the game. So, we thought it was going to be a more penalized game. I guess they call it closer, more holdings, more personal fouls. They just have more fouls in their games than we average in the SEC. It just so happened that a lot of them went against us at inopportune times. But I don’t question officiating.”

Dillon Bell gets past a Tech defender during a 29-yard run Saturday night. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

Of course, while the officials affected the final score, they did not affect the outcome of the game.

Special teams play was exemplary for Georgia, with Allen recovering an onside kick that the Jackets tried after their last score, Peyton Woodring kicking a 39-yard field goal and making all his PATs, Jared Zirkel notching touchbacks on all 6 of his kickoffs, and Georgia punting only once. The Dawgs also had a good night in kick returns, with Bell having a 39-yard kickoff return and Mekhi Mews returning three kickoffs for a total of 76 yards, including returns of 33 and 37 yards. In addition, the Dawgs haven’t had a punt returned all season.

Overall, the offense kept Georgia in control of a game in which the Dawgs seemed to be trying to keep it vanilla and get out of town with a win and no more injuries.

Georgia finished with 437 yards of offense on 59 plays (256 of those yards running) to Tech’s 363 yards on 65 plays.

Head coach Kirby Smart waves to Georgia fans after his Dawgs defeated Tech. (Hyosub Shin/AJC) (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/Dawgnation)

The Dawgs now face a resurgent Alabama (which had its own close-call rivalry game Saturday with Auburn) for the SEC title. And the reality is that, in the final year of a four-team playoff, Georgia might have to win that game against Bama in order to make the cut, due to a surfeit of strong teams vying for a spot.

If nothing else makes the case for expanding the playoff to 12 teams next year, just contemplate the ridiculous possible scenario of a Georgia team that finished the regular season undefeated not being a lock this year if they lose to the Tide.

We’ll worry about that next week, though. In the meantime, besides breaking the SEC record for consecutive wins, the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs now have won 45 of their past 46 games, 39 regular season games in row (an ongoing UGA record that leads the Football Bowl Subdivision), 15 true road games in a row (an ongoing UGA record that also leads the FBS) and 21 nonconference games in a row. The win over Tech also was the 49th by the 2023 senior class, tying the program record set by the 2022 seniors.

The Bulldogs under Smart are 93-15 overall.

As I’ve said before, these are the glory days; savor them.