Georgia looks ready for Alabama as it finishes SEC play perfect

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) attempts a pass during the first quarter against the Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, Saturday, November 18, 2023, in Knoxville, Tn. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) attempts a pass during the first quarter against the Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, Saturday, November 18, 2023, in Knoxville, Tn. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Alabama right now, given how it’s rejuvenated its season. Georgia’s steadiness is a more boring storyline, but that suits it just fine. The Bulldogs look prepared for what might be labeled the game of the season.

In two weeks, Georgia will meet Alabama again with everything on the line. After walloping Ole Miss and Tennessee, the Bulldogs couldn’t look much better with that matchup looming.

With their 38-10 win in Knoxville, Tennessee on Saturday, Georgia finished 8-0 in SEC play. Again. That’s three consecutive seasons without a regular-season conference loss, an SEC record. The Bulldogs haven’t been topped by an SEC East team since Kyle Trask’s and Kyle Pitts’ Gators won in 2020. They haven’t lost a regular-season game to an SEC West foe since Alabama defeated them a few weeks earlier.

“Great coaching, great players and it’s a blessing,” receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint said. “The guys who’ve been on the team for three or four years, who’ve been here for these past two runs, we’ve been putting so much work in together. To have accomplished something like that, 8-0 in SEC play for three years straight, we’re thankful for that.”

Tight end Brock Bowers, who hasn’t lost an SEC East game in his career: “Thinking back on it, it’s pretty crazy.”

After two incredible seasons, this was the year Georgia “probably” would lose a conference game. The odds say you’re not running the table across three campaigns. Yet each challenge presented, Georgia succeeded.

Georgia trailed South Carolina 14-3 at halftime; it won by 10. Auburn was a tough place to play; Georgia escaped. Kentucky was supposed to be at least a moderate challenge; Georgia won by 38. Florida “could always make that game interesting;” it wasn’t. Ole Miss came in firing, trying for its biggest win in years; it was destroyed.

Even before the season, this game Saturday in Knoxville was circled as a spot Georgia could be upended. Despite Tennessee scoring on its first play, Georgia led by 17 at halftime and won by 28. The Bulldogs outgained the Volunteers 472-277. Time of possession: Georgia 40:58; Tennessee 19:02.

Georgia had 27 first downs to Tennessee’s 13 and converted nine of 13 third downs opposed to the Volunteers converting twice in 11 tries. The Bulldogs’ third-down success might be the most impressive aspect of their team.

“Third downs have been the difference for us this year,” coach Kirby Smart said. Georgia converts around 56% of third downs, a staggering number that ranks best in the nation.

Tennessee hadn’t lost a home game since Georgia defeated them here in 2021 (14 consecutive victories). The Volunteers hadn’t lost a home game by double digits since Dec. 19, 2020, before coach Josh Heupel was hired.

“It was loud,” Rosemy-Jacksaint said. “It wasn’t this loud two years ago, so the crowd definitely had an effect on the game. We were able to overcome that.

“It got a little quieter as the game went on.”

Crowd noise early or deflating silence late, Georgia treated Tennessee like it was Tennessee-Martin. Analysts and fans nitpick these Bulldogs, but they remain perfect. And they’ve played their finest when presented the more difficult tasks.

As it turns out, Auburn – which lost handily to New Mexico State at home Saturday – has come the closest to unseating the two-time national champs. Georgia’s first road conference game also was its only one-score finish. The Bulldogs swept their SEC slate, outscoring their opposition by an average of 20.9 points per game. That’s despite trailing in seven of those eight contests.

The Bulldogs went 9-13 on third down, while Tennessee went 2-11.

In its four biggest games – against Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee – the Georgia defense allowed 15.25 points per game. The Bulldogs haven’t allowed more than 21 points in a contest this season. That’s a good formula when the offense has produced less than 30 points only twice.

Quarterback Carson Beck, who just keeps getting better, in those aforementioned four games: 11 touchdowns, one interception. As the calendar approaches Thanksgiving, the biggest concern with Beck is the possibility he enters the NFL draft and forces Georgia to start anew again next year.

Tight end Brock Bowers missed the Missouri game, but against the other three teams, he had 17 catches for 226 yards and three touchdowns. It’s been three seasons. It’s evident at this point the SEC has no answer for him.

Then there’s the emerging Dillon Bell, whose versatility would make Taysom Hill blush. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has used Bell in a variety of ways, even borrowing a play Saturday from his predecessor Todd Monken that saw Bell toss a wide-open 18-yard touchdown to Rosemy-Jacksaint.

In all, Georgia had three wins within a 10-point margin during SEC play. They had only two such victories across their conference schedule in the previous two seasons. Perhaps that can be viewed as the margin closing somewhat, but the Bulldogs have remained so much better than the competition that doesn’t really matter.

“Take what we got and make what we got better than what they got,” Smart said. “I really believe our culture is our difference. Everyone will say it’s players. I just don’t think it’s just players. We have good players. We have really good players. But I think there’s a lot about our culture that kids buy into and they stay level-headed.”

It’s true that Georgia lacks the same defensive speed of the past two years. It isn’t quite as dominant in the trenches. But the glory of the past two teams colors perception of this one. This is a fast team. It’s a strong one. It very well might be the best team in the country, even if some spectators feel it falls short of the past two.

It’s been said before and will be said again: The Bulldogs won’t have to defeat their 2021-22 or 2022-23 selves to win another championship. After seeing Georgia Tech on Saturday, they will have to defeat the only team that’s truly compared with them over the past several years.

Georgia and Alabama will play for the first time since the latter won Jan. 10, 2022, to earn its first title in 41 years. Another matchup was overdue. This one carries comparable importance with the past two meetings. And the winner likely will guarantee itself a playoff spot.