No. 4 Georgia survives scare, punches ticket to SEC Championship game

It wasn't shiny, gleaming and beautiful. But like Georgia's wins have been all season, its victory over Auburn was good enough to earn yet another trip to Atlanta to play for the SEC Championship.

With a fourth-quarter stand, the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs held on to secure their third consecutive SEC Eastern Division title with a 21-14 win over No. 12 Auburn here at Jordan-Hare Stadium. With the victory, Georgia (9-1, 6-1 SEC) punched its ticket to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where it will face the SEC West champion at 4 p.m. Dec. 7.

The opponent is expected to be No. 1 LSU, which was playing at Ole Miss on Saturday night.

The Bulldogs become the first team to win three consecutive SEC East championships since Florida won five consecutive from 1992-96. Georgia is 1-1 in its past two trips.

“I think it’s special,” said junior Jake Fromm, who has been the quarterback of record for each one. “For us, I think it speaks a lot about this football class (of 2017), the guys we have in the locker room, the leaders we had before. For us, you know, it’s about a lot of hard work. We put a lot in and we think it’s special.”

Photos  | Steve Hummer

Fromm, running back D'Andre Swift, linebacker Monty Rice and safety Richard LeCounte were among the members of Georgia's 2017 recruiting class, which was ranked No. 1 in the country that year. They're 33-6 since showing up and have won their last three against Auburn.

“That's not guaranteed,” Swift said of playing for the title in Atlanta. “This team competed today knowing what we had to do to get back to it. It’s great for this team and this university and we’re definitely excited for it.”

The Tigers fall to 7-3 (4-3 SEC).

The Bulldogs survived as much as they conquered. It looked as though they were heading toward a fourth shutout as they took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter. At that point Georgia's defense had recorded 27 scoreless quarters this season.

But the Tigers came alive in the fourth. After not reaching Georgia’s red zone the entire game, they penetrated it twice to start the final period and scored touchdowns both times. The second one, a diving 2-yard run by quarterback Bo Nix, broke Georgia's national-best streak of nine games without allowing a rushing touchdown.

That made the score 21-14 with 7:03 to play and put the Bulldogs in position to make something happen on offense. They didn’t.

But once again, Georgia’s defense did what it had to do.

Auburn reached the Bulldogs' 34 when it faced fourth-and-2 with 2:30 to play. Nix ran a well-executed play-action bootleg right, but his pass for running back Harold Joiner in the flat was slightly behind and dropped.

The Bulldogs took over on downs, but again couldn’t advance the ball. After Jake Camarda’s 31-yard punt, they had 70 yards of real estate to defend.

They did didn't give up even one. Freshman Travon Walker sacked Nix on fourth-and-10 at the 27, and there would be no “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” on this night.

VIDEO: Georgia linebacker Monty Rice talks about the defense's play in the win over Auburn. Video by Chip Towers.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart was relieved as much as he was proud. He said he didn't even mention clinching the SEC East in the postgame locker room celebration. The focus, he said, remains on the next game, which will be Texas A&M at Sanford Stadium next Saturday.

“I told them, How 'bout them [expletive] Dawgs?!” Smart exclaimed. “That's what I told them. Excuse my language. I didn't say anything about the SEC East because that wasn't the goal coming in here. You know what I mean?”

No, Georgia remains very much in the race to reach the College Football Playoff. But, to do so, it has to win all its remaining games, which include A&M and Georgia Tech and a likely matchup against No. 1 LSU in the conference title game. The Tigers, who were leading Ole Miss 31-15 in the third quarter Saturday, will clinch the West with a win in Oxford.

Georgia left the Plains knowing it needs to play better on offense. It finished with a season-low 251 yards against Auburn's stout defense. But it got what it needed from Fromm, who was 13-of-28 passing for 110 yards and three touchdowns, and Swift finished with 106 hard-earned yards on 17 carries.

“Yeah, real hard-earned,” said Swift, who with 1,027 yards became the fifth Georgia back to do that in two seasons. “They have a great front and great linebackers. So, it was real hard.”

The difference was a 12-play 88-yard scoring drive in the third quarter and an 81-yard drive in the final 1:19 of the second quarter.

The Tigers penetrated UGA’s red zone only twice in the first three quarters. But their score on a 3-yard pass from Nix to Eli Stove busted the shutout and got them within two scores with 10:04 to play.

When Nix scored on a two-yard diving run three minutes later, Georgia's record streak of nine games without allowing a rushing touchdown ended and the game was in doubt.

It appeared the Tigers had recovered an ensuing onside kick. But video review revealed Auburn had illegally blocked on the play, so it was penalized five yards and had to re-kick.

Georgia forced the fourth-down stop on Auburn's next possession and held on from there.

“It sucked not to finish the game the right way,” said Rice, who led the Bulldogs with 10 stops. “But we'll get back to the drawing board on that when we come to work next week.”