Georgia’s Carson Beck has readied himself for SEC Championship game moment

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) shouts instructions during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday, November 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Georgia won 31-23 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

ATHENS — It’s late in the third quarter at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. No. 1 Georgia trails the Tigers by a touchdown and things have not gone well all day. Auburn has just punted, and the ball is downed at the Bulldogs’ 2. The place, as the late, great Larry Munson might have said, is “worse than bonkers.”

There are many moments that have defined Carson Beck’s growth as Georgia’s quarterback this season, but the 88,043 in attendance on The Plains that late-September afternoon and millions more tuning in on television were about to witness one of the more profound.

Backed up within the shadow of his own goal post, having already thrown an interception in the game and nearly as many incompletions (6) as completions (8), Beck stood behind center Sedrick Van Pran with his feet in the end zone and 98 yards of green grass in front of him. Ten plays later, the Bulldogs would add a touchdown to tie the score. They would score two more times after that to hold on for a 27-20 victory and avoid an upset yet again.

As the Bulldogs boarded their bus to head back to Athens, there was a different air about the tall and lanky quarterback wearing the No. 15. He always knew he could do that – win on the road in a hostile environment with his back against the wall – but now he had.

“Certainly the Auburn experience was big for him in terms of confidence,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart recollected this week. “It was his first true road test, to be in that environment, to have a tough environment to play in, he did a really nice job in that game.”

Neither that drive nor that game were things of football beauty, necessarily. Beck completed 4 of 5 passes for 53 yards on that possession. He rushed for 7 yards on two carries, too, one of them netting zero yards but avoiding a sack. He would finish with 313 yards and a touchdown on 23-of-33 passing. But his numbers after taking that late-third-quarter snap from the 2-yard line were almost flawless – 15-of-19 passing for 229 yards and a score.

And buried within that drive were a pair of third-down conversions, one on third-and-5 from the Georgia 23 and another on third-and-10 from the Dogs’ 37. Georgia was 8-of-13 converting third downs on the afternoon. The Tigers, by contrast, were 2-for-12.

If there is anything that distinguishes the still-top-ranked Bulldogs (12-0) from No. 8 Alabama in Saturday’s SEC Championship game clash at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4 p.m., CBS), it’s Beck’s elite-level execution on third downs. The Bulldogs are one one-thousandth of a point behind LSU from leading the nation in that conversion rate at .566, or 56.6%.

The Crimson Tide (11-1), as the world is well aware now, have a good quarterback, too. Jalen Milroe, like Beck, will be playing in his first SEC Championship game. A year behind Beck, both quarterbacks had to bide their time behind iconic starters before finally getting a chance to lead their teams in such a meaningful game.

For Beck, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior from Jacksonville, Saturday’s game will be a pinch-me experience.

“I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to go out there and compete at a high level,” Beck said Monday in his one-and-only interview availability with the press covering the game. “Obviously, it was one of our goals to make it to the SEC Championship game. So, to be able to do that, very proud of our team at this point and looking forward to the opportunity.”

That statement is about as emotional as Beck allows himself to be. When it comes to discussing his journey with the media, he knows he’s in still in the midst of writing his college football story, and he’s not the least bit interested in being reflective at this point.

Besides, nobody is more aware than Beck that the moments that will define his Georgia legacy remain in front of him. That starts with Saturday’s game.

The Bulldogs will walk through those familiar doors off Northside Drive carrying the longest win streak in SEC history at 29 games. A loss on Saturday not only would bring that to an end, but would have the potential for crashing the entire prospect of a historic Georgia three-peat.

That the opponent is Alabama just adds to the drama. Nick Saban-coached teams have been the bogeyman for the Bulldogs, especially in Atlanta. Georgia’s 0-4 against him and 0-3 in the SEC game.

Ever the “compartmentalist,” Beck insists none of that is on his or the Bulldogs’ minds.

“I don’t think it’s something that we think about ever, to be honest,” Beck said of streaks and opponents. “I think we’ve done a really good job at keeping the main thing the main thing and focusing on each opponent week to week and just trying to go 1-0 as each game presents itself.”

Beck’s steely focus is the real deal, according to those who know them best. D.J. Shockley is in that group, and it’s fitting that he and Beck have become so close because their personal stories are so parallel.

Shockley, who now serves Georgia football as the team’s sideline reporter for radio broadcasts, had to wait until his senior season before finally getting his chance be the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback. After sitting behind All-SEC signal-caller David Greene for three seasons, Shockley was able to step out of the shadows in 2005. And he left that season with sparkling legacy, leading Georgia to the SEC championship while being named MVP of the Bulldogs’ 34-14 win over LSU at the old Georgia Dome.

Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley.  (BRANT SANDERLIN/AJC file)

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So, Shockley can identify better than anybody with Beck’s journey. Accordingly, the two have become fast friends and confidantes, often standing side-by-side and talking on the sidelines during Georgia’s games.

“I get a chance to talk to Carson a lot in-game and kind of pick his brain on stuff,” Shockley said this week. “We’ll be standing to the side, and I might ask him about a play or a throw or a situation. To be honest, what everybody says about him is true. The guy is the same whether things are going good or going bad. It’s not a cliché thing, like quarterbacks are always supposed to be even-keeled or anything like that. He just has such a good mindset. Whether something goes wrong or right, he always has the same attitude going forward: ‘Let’s go get the next one.’”

Shockley said Beck is far more fiery on the sidelines than he is in media interviews. Having been in the same shoes, Shockley has become somewhat of a sounding board for him. So, Beck will seek him out to vent or just bounce ideas off him.

“There are a lot of times in games that he wants the ball in his hands,” Shockley shared. “He’ll be, like, ‘man, I wish we’d do so-and-so or such-and-such.’ Then I’ll see him go out on the field and do it.”

Like Saturday against Georgia Tech, for instance. Yellow Jackets quarterback Haynes King was running all over the field, giving the Bulldogs defense fits. Standing next to each other on the Georgia sideline, Shockley nudged the quarterback’s arm.

“‘See that, bro; you need to use your legs more. If it ain’t there, you need to take off,’” Shockley said to the Bulldogs quarterback. “He’s, like, ‘I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it. You watch, I’m gonna take off!’ And he did.”

Beck took off with the ball four times for 24 yards in the 31-23 win over the Jackets. He’s had that many carries in each of the past three games, gaining a season-high 30 yards against Ole Miss. More important, Beck hasn’t been sacked in the past three games and only eight times all season.

That will be even more important Saturday as the Bulldogs face from the Crimson Tide the most intense pass rush they’ve encountered all season. Edge rushers Dallas Turner (9) and Chris Braswell (8) have 17 sacks between them, and Alabama has recorded 37 as a team, plus 76 tackles for loss.

But that is what’s to be expected facing a top-10 opponent in a conference championship game. Beck knows that better than anybody because he’s logged hours and hours this week studying the Alabama defense and preparing for the moments that might await him Saturday.

That’s another side of Beck that Shockley thinks goes under-appreciated. He said Beck is a world-class student of the game. All those third-down conversions aren’t merely the product of a cannon arm or pin-point accuracy, though those traits certainly help. Beck’s pregame preparation has enabled him to anticipate who’s going to be open and what kind of throw needs to be made days before he encounters situations in games.

“I was in Athens on Monday, doing the things I’ve got to do each week, and I ran into Carson in one of the back halls,” Shockley said. “We got to talking about the game. He said, ‘I’ve been in the film room for like three hours.’ I look at my watch and this was 11 o’clock in the morning. So he’s been in there since 8, and he’s talking about what Bama’s doing on defense and all this stuff he feels like they can exploit during the game. I mean, I’m sure Bama feels the same way, but, yeah, he’s excited. He’s eager and excited and can’t wait to get to this game.”

In that moment in the hallway, Shockley reminded Beck how similar their paths are, how he hadn’t been in position to lead Georgia onto the field in a championship game until his fourth season and what an incredible experience that was.

“He’s, like, ‘Wow, I know. I’m so excited to play in this game!”

“I said, ‘It’s your show now! Enjoy it,” Shockley said.

And that’s the attitude Beck intends to take into his first championship game as Georgia’s starting quarterback. “Just going to go out there and try to execute and have fun,” he said.

Credit: Sarah K. Spencer/AJC

With a season’s worth of experience and data under his belt – he’s completed 72.4% of his passes for 3,495 yards and 22 TDs go to with six interceptions – Beck will enter the first championship game of his career seen as an asset, not as a liability. That’s a long way from the expectations outsiders had for Beck coming into the season.

Beck’s name often appeared in the middle if not the bottom half of preseason lists that rated quarterbacks in the SEC. Thirteen games later, Las Vegas gives Beck the fourth-best odds to win the Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, NFL draft analysts are actively debating whether he might be first-round material or if it would make more sense to come back for another season at Georgia.

They’re all still learning about Carson Beck. His coaches and teammates insist they never doubted him for a moment.

“He was family for a long time before he started to get these opportunities,” Smart said. “I had seen his ups and downs and his trials and tribulations and the things he had gone through on the field. He had already proven to me his talent-level by the way he prepared last year. So, I wasn’t seeing things that were like groundbreaking. They were things that I had seen before. His maturation has been a game-by-game process, and he’s done a nice job of that.”

Said Van Pran, the senior center: “Carson has done a tremendous job of having a process, growing this season week-by-week and getting better. That’s the biggest thing, besides God, that allows him to carry himself in the manner he does.”

Everybody knows now that Beck is an exceptional quarterback and that he probably has been all along. His legacy, though, will be determined Saturday.

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) looks to pass during the fourth quarter against the Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday, November 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Georgia won 31-23. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Georgia's quarterback Carson Beck (15) gets off a pass during the first half in an NCAA football game at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 23, 2023, in Athens. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia's quarterback Carson Beck (15) runs with a ball during the first half in an NCAA football game at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 16, 2023, in Athens. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) runs for yards during the second quarter against UT Martin at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 2, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 48-7. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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