Georgia’s Kirby Smart: Loss to Alabama a ‘wake-up call’

December 4, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia's head coach Kirby Smart talks to Alabama's quarterback Bryce Young (9) after Alabama beat Georgia during the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game at during the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, December 4, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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December 4, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia's head coach Kirby Smart talks to Alabama's quarterback Bryce Young (9) after Alabama beat Georgia during the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game at during the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, December 4, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The ink on the final box score from Saturday night’s SEC Championship game barely will be dry Sunday when the final College Football Playoff rankings will be released.

Georgia, No. 1 before losing to No. 3 Alabama 41-24, is expected to remain among the top four. The main question heading in is whether the Crimson Tide or Michigan will be the new No. 1.

The Wolverines, No. 2 heading into Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship game, made a case to move to the top spot with their 42-3 win over Iowa in Indianapolis. Hassan Haskins ran for two second-half touchdowns to lead Michigan to its first Big Ten title in 17 years.

More likely, though, the Crimson Tide (12-1) will take over at No. 1 and Georgia will fall to No. 3. No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) defeated Houston 35-20 in the American Athletic Conference championship Saturday night.

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Credit: The Associated Press

Credit: The Associated Press

That scenario would pit the Bulldogs against Michigan for the first time since 1965. The teams are 1-1 all-time against each other. Georgia won 15-7 in 1965 and lost 26-0 in 1957, with both games taking place in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The CFP semifinals are being held in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, and the Orange Bowl in Miami. Georgia-Michigan in the Orange and Alabama-Cincinnati in the Cotton were the most likely scenarios, according to overnight prognostications. The CFP selection committee is meeting in the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas, to make the final determinations.

Saturday represented the third time the No. 1 team has lost in the SEC Championship game. Alabama lost in 2008 to Florida and Florida lost to Alabama in 2009.

Wherever the Bulldogs end up, Georgia coach Kirby Smart believes they will be a better-focused group after the humbling they received from Alabama.

“What it did is reinvigorate our energy,” Smart said. “It re-centers you, right? Their greatest thing is when they lost their game against Texas A&M, they garnered some focus and some attention. To me, that’s an opportunity for a wake-up call, if anything.”

Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game:

Quarterback play

A segment of Georgia fans expressed dissatisfaction Saturday night that Smart stuck with quarterback Stetson Bennett throughout the whole game against Alabama. The senior recorded career highs for completions, attempts and touchdowns against was 29-for-48 passing for 340 yards (all career highs) with three touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions, including one that was returned 42 yards for a touchdown by Alabama safety Jordan Battle.

Like they have the past six weeks, the Bulldogs had junior quarterback JT Daniels to turn to. But for the third time in the past six games, Georgia’s one-time starter never got off the bench.

Smart was asked if that might change in the postseason.

“We have a decision to make every week at every position, but I have the utmost confidence in Stetson Bennett,” Smart said. “I think he did some really nice things tonight. We go and re-evaluate everything all the time, but he played well. ... I certainly have a lot of confidence in Stetson, and I have a lot of confidence in J.T., too.”

Bennett and the Bulldogs’ offense were thoroughly outplayed by Alabama and quarterback Bryce Young. Young, a sophomore who played at the same Mater Dai High School that Daniels attended in Irvine, Calif., was named SEC Championship game MVP after passing for a record 421 yards and three touchdowns. The Crimson Tide rolled up 536 yards against the Bulldogs’ top-ranked defense.

Ball distributing

While Bennett didn’t play his best game, he played a pretty good one. In fact, he set an SEC Championship game record by completing passes to 11 different players. Auburn had the mark of 10 in 2000 against Florida. For the second consecutive game, his first nine completions went to nine different players.

And Bennett and Young were both hot during one stretch. Both had completion streaks of nine in a row simultaneously Bennett and Bryce Young each has consecutive completion streaks of nine. That ties for the second most in the championship game, trailing Alabama’s Blake Sims’ mark of 10 in 2014.

Bennett also led the Bulldogs on a nine-play, 97-yard touchdown drive.

Bowers’ big day

Most of Bennett’s completions went to tight end Brock Bowers. A 6-4, 230-pound freshman, Bowers established an SEC Championship game record for receptions by a tight end with 10 for 139 yards and a touchdown. Bowers’ 18-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter was his 11th of the season, tying him with wide receiver Terrence Edwards (2002) for most in a season.

It was Bowers’ fourth career game of 100-plus yards receiving. He becomes the first Bulldog to have at least 10 catches in a game since George Pickens had 12 (for 175 yards) against Baylor in the 2020 Sugar Bowl. Bowers was targeted 16 times.

Why not take the 3?

Georgia came away empty on two of its five trips into the red zone, defined as inside the 20-yard line. One ended in a turnover and another time Georgia went for it on fourth down and failed.

Smart was asked why he didn’t kick the field goal while trailing Alabama by 14 in the third quarter.

“We probably could’ve had points,” Smart said. “But, at that point, I felt like we needed touchdowns and not field goals.”

The Bulldogs had a decent day kicking the ball. Junior Jack Podlesny went 3-for-3 on PATs and made his only field-goal attempt, a 38-yarder. For the year, he is now 64-for-65 on PATs and 18-for-22 on field-goal attempts.

Meanwhile, senior Jake Camarda set an SEC Championship game record with a 68-yard punt, a career long. He averaged 52.5 yards on four punts.

Secondary issues

It was a tough day for Georgia’s defensive backs, who entered the game leading the nation in pass efficiency defense and No. 2 in passing yards allowed (152.0 pg).

On Saturday, they gave up touchdown catches of 67 and 55 yards to Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams, and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young averaged 16.2 yards on 421 yards.

“We had a couple busts,” Smart said. “We had a bust on that play specifically where we left a guy wide open. It wasn’t anything they did different. Same routes they ran on Auburn. … They hit us several times man-to-man. They hit us several times zone. We can’t let guys run free.”

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