A day of deliverance: Georgia wins the SEC and heads for the playoff

Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin (5) makes a touchdown catch against Auburn defensive back Jamel Dean (12) during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Credit: David Goldman

Credit: David Goldman

Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin (5) makes a touchdown catch against Auburn defensive back Jamel Dean (12) during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

We need to emphasize: Georgia hasn’t yet won the national championship. It just feels that way.

It has been 35 years since the Bulldogs headed toward January knowing a title was theirs for the winning. This Georgia team will rise on New Year’s Day to play in a College Football Playoff semifinal, either in New Orleans or in Pasadena, Calif. Win on Jan. 1, and the Bulldogs will be back in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8, another championship on the line, a championship bigger than the one they seized here Saturday.

Georgia fans have long wondered when their turn would again come. They’d seen SEC brethren Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee take national titles since the Bulldogs beat Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 1981. They saw coach Mark Richt work 15 years, twice winning the SEC championship but never playing for a national title. In Year 2, Richt’s replacement has knocked the lid off this program. In Year 2, Kirby Smart has Georgia back atop the SEC, and this time there’s a bigger prize awaiting.

“I know Bulldog Nation is starved,” Smart said, but on this day all Dawgs ate heartily.

The Bulldogs beat Auburn 28-7 on Saturday to win the SEC, the same Auburn that had, on Nov. 11, dealt the Bulldogs their only loss. This game started as if nothing much had changed from that 40-17 score. Then linebacker Davin Bellamy stripped Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham of the ball when Auburn was poised to take a 10-0 lead. What followed was Georgia domination.

The Bulldogs won’t officially be in the playoff until the selection committee announces the pairings at noon Sunday. Realistically, there’s no way a 12-1 SEC champion misses the tournament, especially not one that just thrashed this week’s No. 2 team on a semi-neutral field. From here, it really doesn’t make a difference if Georgia is seeded No. 2 or No. 4 – if you’re in it, you can win it.

Georgia’s in it. Georgia can win it.

Even after a 12-game regular season, it was possible to wonder how good the Bulldogs really were. Their best victory had come by a point over Notre Dame on Sept. 9. They won the SEC East in a season that saw Tennessee and Florida collapse and fire their coaches. After Saturday, there can be no more wondering. Georgia beat a very good opponent – one that had, over the past three weeks, beaten both the Bulldogs and Alabama when both were ranked No. 1 – with a defensive showing that left Gus Malzahn’s sleek offense in the breakdown lane.

Auburn scored a touchdown on the game’s first possession. It never managed another. Its possessions thereafter: Punt, fumble, punt, blocked field goal, punt, fumble, punt, punt, turnover on downs. The Tigers managed 106 yards in the first quarter; they mustered 141 over the final three.

The game stayed closer than it should have because Georgia kept getting penalized. Some of the flags were curious, and the 40,000 or so Bulldogs fans in MBS spent much the night booing the refs. But Georgia got a grip on Auburn, and Auburn saw its hold on the Bulldogs broken. Georgia led 10-7 at halftime and 13-7 after three quarters. The fourth was the stuff of Red & Black nirvana.

Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm found Terry Godwin for a touchdown with 13:06 remaining; then the two collaborated again on a 2-point conversion. Then freshman D’Andre Swift, who wouldn’t be the third-best back on any other team in the land, stormed down the left sideline for a 64-yard touchdown.

Georgia had scored 15 points in two minutes and 32 seconds. Auburn fans began to leave. Georgia fans stayed and sang and cheered long into a night for which many of these folks had waited half a lifetime.

Said Smart: “Seeing (game MVP) Roquan Smith on the stage hugging, in tears ... that’s why I do this.”

It was such a night that athletic director Greg McGarity, himself a Georgia grad, envisioned when, two years and two days earlier, he fired Richt. McGarity had stopped believing Richt could win championships. Smart’s first season was a fizzle. His second has yielded the school’s first SEC title since 2005 and could end with Georgia hoisting its first national championship since Herschel Walker was a freshman.

McGarity sat off to the side during Smart’s postgame media briefing. Someone asked him if this was what he had in mind. “Yes,” he said.

And how, now that the moment had come, did it feel. “It’s hard to explain,” McGarity said. “It’s hard to put into words. It’s like, ‘It really happened.’ ”

Over 3-1/2 decades of trying and never quite succeeding, Georgia became the program that couldn’t get out of its way. It would win games, but seldom the big game. It would land touted recruit hauls, but never reap the full measure. Not to be cruel, but the Bulldogs became a national punchline – they were the “almost” team.

Saturday night saw all the “almosts” put to rest. Even if it doesn’t win the national championship, it’s in the tournament. And if this is what Smart can do in Year 2, what wonders might be in store for years 3, 4, 5?

For the Bulldogs and their long-suffering fans, this was a day of deliverance. And now there’s a semifinal to be played – and glory, glory to be won.