For Georgia, Saturday was all about winning an SEC Championship for the players who otherwise would have left without capturing one. The next 27 days will be all about ratcheting up to make a run at another national championship.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (13-0) will get their usual 24 hours to celebrate the 50-30 victory over LSU for the SEC title. With the last College Football Playoff rankings of the season scheduled to be released at noon Sunday, Georgia has just under four weeks to shore up any areas of weakness.
Pass coverage is a major one. The Bulldogs gave up 502 yards through the air to LSU. The Tigers’ 30 points also was nearly triple Georgia’s season average.
Accordingly, coach Kirby Smart promised there would be “camp-style” practices between Monday and their Dec. 31 semifinal appearance.
“Our guys know everybody can get better,” Smart said. “Conditioning level, tackling. Football’s a tough, hard sport.”
Georgia assured itself of a playoff spot with the win over 14th-ranked LSU at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That victory landed Georgia the SEC trophy for the 14th time in history – which is second only to Alabama – but only the fourth time since divisional play began in 1992. They’ve played for it 10 times over the last 30 years.
“Yeah, winning the SEC is a big deal,” said senior quarterback Stetson Bennett, who was named MVP. “This is the best conference in football. National championships are huge and great; that’s our next goal. But SEC is the first goal.”
Said Smart: “Our team kind of played this game like they played the whole season: unbelievably well in spurts and unbelievably poor in spurts. They answered the bell when they had to. I’m proud of ‘em. They’ve handled that all year.”
Here are some things we learned:
Stetson Bennett for Heisman?
Bennett, the sixth-year senior, earned MVP honors after passing for 279 yards and four touchdowns. One of the more comical moments after Saturday’s game was when a reporter asked Smart whether he thought Bennett should be getting more consideration for the Heisman Trophy.
Sitting immediately to his coach’s right, Bennett started waving his hands and shaking his head and even tapped Smart’s leg not to go there.
Smart went there.
“Well, absolutely,” when asked if he’d lobby for Bennett to win it. “I mean, I think it’s one of those things, this guy’s 23 of 29 in the (game). He didn’t get to do a whole lot in the second half. … He’s played really well.”
The Heisman Trophy will be awarded in New York at 8 p.m. Saturday. It’s considered one of the most wide-open races in recent memory, with front-runners Caleb Williams of USC injured and coming off a loss, TCU’s Max Duggan unable to lift his team to victory Saturday and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker sidelined for the season with a knee injury.
The Heisman committee usually invites four players, and some believe Bennett could get an invitation. But his statistics would probably leave him out of serious consideration. Bennett enters the postseason with 3,425 yards on 68.1% passing with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 269 completions ties Eric Zeier’s Georgia single-season record set in 1993. He has also rushed for seven touchdowns.
Again, Bennett waves off any mention of postseason awards.
“Got good players,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think I got touched tonight. Our O-line was incredible.”
About the blocked-FG TD
There was a reason Christopher Smith and other players didn’t immediately take off with the football after Nazir Stackhouse blocked an LSU field goal late in the first quarter. Georgia players, we learned later, are under strict orders not to attempt to advance a ball in such a situation unless they are sure they’re going to score.
“That’s a scenario we go over a lot,” Smith said. “We know if the ball’s past the line of scrimmage, we have an opportunity to be able to pick it up. I was waiting for the go to get it from the sideline.”
It was only when LSU players basically quit on the play that Smith was given the go-ahead. He went 96 yards for a touchdown, giving the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead rather than a 3-0 deficit.
Kirby Smart’s play of game
In Smart’s estimation, the special-teams touchdown by Smith was not the biggest play in the game. For him, it was Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint’s 18-yard reception on a tunnel screen midway through the third quarter.
At that point, the Bulldogs were ahead 35-17 and had just stopped LSU on fourth-and-1 at the 5-yard line. After taking over there, Georgia faced third-and-6 at the 9. That’s when Rosemy-Jacksaint, in tight coverage, was able to haul in Bennett’s hard-thrown pass that resulted in a first down at the Georgia 27. The Bulldogs would score on a 2-yard run by Kenny McIntosh five plays later. That capped an eight-play, 95-yard drive.
“I thought (that was) the play of the game,” Smart said. “Third-and-6, backed up, Stet hits him on a screen. Marcus sticks it in there, two great blocks. Without that conversion, we’re punting the ball back to them.”
Another oddity of sorts came when Georgia, leading 48-23 after McIntosh’s second touchdown on an 8-yard run with 13:13 to play, went for a two-point conversion rather than kick an extra point for a 26-point lead.
It was “by the book,” according to Smart.
“We felt that (27-point) differential made it right … to go to 27,” he said. “It was just by the book. The analytics were to go for two.”
Remarkably, it was little-used A.D. Mitchell who made the pass to Darnell Washington, which gave the Bulldogs 50 points. Mitchell had played just six snaps in the last 11 games because of an ankle injury.
“I talked to A.D. in the huddle, because he hadn’t played that much,” Bennett said. “I was like, ‘All right, this is you, brother.’ I sprinted left, tossed it to him. He actually threw a spiral, I think. I don’t think he’s thrown one of those in practice. I don’t think he’s repped that play.”
Injuries to Warren McClendon, Ladd McConkey
Georgia saw two of its most important offensive players sent to the sideline with injuries. Starting right tackle Warren McClendon left the game with 4:42 remaining in the first half, and flanker Ladd McConkey followed him 3 ½ minutes later. Both were determined to have knee injuries and did not return.
Smart said McClendon’s was a sprain of the medial collateral ligament and intimated that it wasn’t overly serious. McConkey’s was “a continuation” of tendinitis that has been bothering him for a while.
Both players were scheduled to undergo further examinations in Athens on Sunday.