Analysis: Bulldogs back where they belong in SEC title game

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm speaks about the offensive attrition, inconsistency Saturday. (Video by Chip Towers/AJC)

Finally, after essentially an eight-week moratorium on anybody involved with Georgia football having anything to say about the SEC Championship Game, the Bulldogs could talk about it Saturday.

Soon after the Bulldogs put the finishing touches on a more-eventful-than-it-should-have-been 52-7 win over Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale in Atlanta, the questions came. No. 4 Georgia (11-1) will meet No. 2 LSU (12-0) for SEC bragging rights, as well as a College Football Playoff berth.

The Bulldogs’ mindset heading back to “The Benz?”

“Excited,” coach Kirby Smart said. “You earn the opportunity to play in this game. People will talk about a lot of games outside this and this being a de facto play-in game and all these different things. The SEC Championship is the greatest environment maybe in all of football. OK? You can say the Super Bowl and all of this, but there is no greater passion for a game than any place in the country when you talk about LSU and the University of Georgia.”

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The Tigers completed their regular season with a 50-7 win over Texas A&M in Baton Rouge late Saturday night. Georgia played the Aggies last week, winning 19-13 in Athens.

This is the Bulldogs' third consecutive trip to the SEC Championship in four years under Smart. It's the third different opponent they will have faced, following Auburn and Alabama in the last two seasons.

“They’re all different,” Smart said of SEC title games. “We’ll prepare for these guys like we do anybody else. We’ll go through our normal week. You guys will make a bigger deal out of it, but we’ll prepare the same way we always to do, put the best plan together we can and go throw our helmets out there.”

Here are some storylines as the Bulldogs begin preparations for LSU:

Explosive O versus stout D

Smart nearly choked when he was asked what he’d seen “on tape” from LSU. Smart was incredulous that anybody would think he’d been studying the Tigers even to the slightest degree before all Georgia's regular-season games were behind them. But he did admit to knowing about LSU anecdotally and from the game tapes they’d seen preparing for Florida and Auburn.

“They throw the ball really well, they’ve got one of the best backs (Clyde Edwards-Helaire) I’ve seen on TV when he gets out there and breaks things open,” Smart said. “The backs and receivers from last year, we played them. The quarterback (Joe Burrow) is incredible. He was that way last year. People don’t give him enough credit for the athlete he is. He’s a great basketball player, he does good things. We know what kind of good things they do. They’ve got good football players.

“Guess what? So does everybody else in the SEC.”

Indeed, the game will match the SEC’s most prolific offense against its best defense. Tech finished with 139 total yards Saturday, ensuring Georgia will enter the game ranked in the top five nationally in yards, rushing and scoring.

A look back at the top plays in the Bulldogs' 52-7 win over the Yellow Jackets in the 2019 regular-season finale at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Video courtesy of ACC)

Wrapping up Tech

The 52-7 victory represented the largest margin of victory and most points scored by one team in the 126-year history of the Tech-Georgia rivalry. Previously, the Bulldogs’ 2002 team defeated the Yellow Jackets 51-7. It was their 10th consecutive win in Atlanta.

With its third win in a row, Georgia’s pushes ahead in the series 70-39-5 and retains the Governor’s Cup Trophy, which now has a home in a display case on the second floor of the Butts-Mehre Building.

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The 2019 squad is the 12th in school history to tally at least 11 wins in a season. It’s the third consecutive year that the Bulldogs finished the regular season 11-1.

Georgia’s senior class improves to 43-11, which ties them with the 1983 squad (43-4-1). The 2005 squad has the most at 44-9.

“From start to finish this might’ve been the best we’ve played,” sophomore cornerback Eric Stokes said. “We there’s a lot of things we need to clean-up on. But we know we can play with anybody.”

What about UGA’s offense?

It’s hard to imagine scoring 52 points and gaining 500 yards and emerging concerned about your offense, but that’s where the Bulldogs were following the win over Tech.

Georgia had 219 yards rushing quarterback Jake Fromm had only the second four-touchdown passing game of his career. But Fromm also failed to complete at least 50 percent of his passes for the fourth consecutive game, and the Bulldogs had a scoreless second quarter which allowed Tech back into the game after falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter.

“We didn’t quite play the four-quarter game we wanted to,” Fromm said afterward. “But when you win 52-7 against an in-state rival, that’s a big deal. You’ve got to be thankful for that. Wish we could’ve done better in the second quarter, but that’s football. We’re going to do our best to fix it and go play next week.”

The Tigers entered the final week of the season averaging more than 47 points a game. Smart was asked about his level of confidence in the offense heading into the championship game.

"I think our offense has gotten better; I think they continue to improve,” he said. “They work really hard. We're nowhere near where we need to be. But we've got good special teams, we've got a really good defense. We've got an offense that has some really good football players that maybe hasn't clicked on all cylinders, but they continue to work.”

VIDEO: UGA's Kirby Smart gives updates on injured D'Andre Swift and George Pickens, who was ejected. Video by Chip Towers.

Health and fitness

Smart insisted that the shoulder injury that sidelined running back D'Andre Swift early in the third quarter is not too serious and that the junior from Philadelphia ought to be able to play Saturday against LSU. That would be good news for the Bulldogs, who were getting 103 yards a game from Swift before he was sidelined with 73 through two and a half quarters Saturday.

“He probably could have gone back in the game if he needed to,” Smart said. “But he knew that wasn’t what we needed to do. We needed to rest him and get him ready. He’s been a warrior and a leader of this team. His spirit will be needed next week, because he’s got a lot of energy and emotion that we need."

Backup Brian Herrien had 46 yards on eight carries, James Cook 30 on four and Zamir White 30 on six.

The real issue for the Bulldogs is at wideout, where they know they’re without leading pass-catcher Lawrence Cager (ankle) for the rest of the season and second-leading receiver George Pickens for the first half next Saturday. Pickens was ejected for fighting in the third quarter against Tech and will have to sit out the first half against LSU.

In their absences, Tyler Simmons led Georgia’s wideouts with three catches for 52 yards. Pickens had one catch for a 41-yard TD after missing the first half due to an undisclosed disciplinary suspension from last week. In all, the Bulldogs had 10 players catch passes, including six wideouts, two running backs and two tight ends.

Senior tight end Charlie Woerner scored his first career TD in the first quarter on a 20-yard reception.
"We've had a merry-go-round of receivers," Smart said. "That's been probably the toughest part. The O-line, you take one guy out, put another one in, there's not a lot of difference. But there's been a difference in some of the receivers we've run in and out and that's the part we've really got to hone in on."

Mostly special teams

Georgia had a productive — if not indifferent — game on special teams against the Yellow Jackets. It will have to approach perfection against LSU.

Rodrigo Blankenship made another 49-yard field goal for the Bulldogs but also had only his second miss in the last six weeks when he left a 42-yard attempt wide right in the second quarter.

Georgia’s defense forced the Jackets into a Tech record of 13 punts and Dominick Blaylock returned three of them for 45 yards, including a 32-yarder. But Blaylock also muffed a punt at the Bulldogs’ 17-yard line, which led to the Jackets’ only score.

Punter Jake Camarda continued his good work with a 46.2-yard average on three punts, all of them downed within the 20. And another was mishandled by Tech, which Tyson Campbell recovered in the end zone for Georgia’s last touchdown.