STARKVILLE, Miss. – It’s getting real now.
With its 45-19 win over Mississippi State here at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday night, the No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs (10-0, 7-0 SEC) officially punched their ticket to the SEC Championship game Dec. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It is fifth time in the past six years that the Bulldogs have claimed the Eastern Division title under seventh-year coach Kirby Smart.
And Georgia knows its opponent will be LSU. The Tigers (8-2, 6-1 SEC) eked out a hard-fought 13-10 win over Arkansas on Saturday in Fayetteville. With the victory – combined with Alabama’s 30-24 win over Ole Miss in Oxford – the Tigers’ clinched the berth from the West.
Meanwhile, what at the start of the season was expected to be a meaningful matchup against Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington now has been reduced to a formality. The Wildcats (6-4, 3-4) lost at home to Vanderbilt 24-21 on Saturday. Now only unintimidating teams from Kentucky and Georgia Tech stand in the way of the Bulldogs completing a second consecutive undefeated regular season.
As for Saturday, if there was any celebration of winning the East, it was muted at best. Not only has this become somewhat old hat for the Bulldogs, they remain stoic in their mission to achieve perfection. That’s even after a trophy has been won, as was the case with the latest victory.
“No, not at all,” senior safety Christopher Smith said when asked if Georgia celebrated. “We’re focused on Kentucky.
Said sophomore wideout Ladd McConkey: “It’s an awesome feeling, but we’ve got to turn our focus to next week.”
Such an attitude has put the Bulldogs in position to become college football’s first repeat national champion since Alabama in 2011-12. But even more motivating for Georgia is the opportunity to be SEC champions for the first time in five years. Somewhat forgotten in the Bulldogs’ incredible run to national championship last season was their inability to secure the conference crown.
But, again, getting the Bulldogs to acknowledge that at this point is a impossible proposition.
“We didn’t really talk about it in the locker room,” Smart said. “That wasn’t our goal today. Our goal was to come here and beat Mississippi State.”
Facing a team of maroon-clad Bulldogs (6-4, 3-4) that hadn’t previously lost on their home field (5-0), Georgia had a few hiccups along the way. But otherwise it thoroughly dominated another SEC opponent.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns and the Bulldogs piled up 468 yards of offense against what Smart said was the best defense Georgia has faced all season. McConkey led the Bulldogs with 141 total yards and scored touchdowns on a 70-yard run and 17-yard reception in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, UGA’s defense proved again it’s better than any other in the SEC. It limited coach Mike Leach’s famed “Air Raid” attack to 308 yards -- quite a few of them coming late with the game well in Georgia’s hands -- and forced the Maroons into three turnovers on downs. The Bulldogs again were led by defensive tackle Jalen Carter, who had seven tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker Smael Mondon and safety Malaki Starks had eight tackles each.
Georgia 45, Mississippi State 19
But there were several anxious moments for the road team and its fans, which again made a strong showing in an opposing team’s stadium. The Bulldogs lost the turnover battle again, 2-0, and gave State more opportunities to make it a game than it probably deserved.
Smart made one of his more egregious coaching mistakes in a while when he chose not to kill the clock on Georgia’s last possession of the first half. The Bulldogs led 17-6 with State down to a single timeout with 44 seconds remaining when they took over at their 20 after a poor kickoff return. The Bulldogs managed only six yards on three consecutive passes. That left only enough time on the clock for the home team to get the ball back.
Turns out State didn’t need the time. Zavion Thomas fielded Brett Thorson’s low-arced, 36-yard punt, shook one tackler and then ran untouched down the right sideline behind a wall of blockers for a 63-yard touchdown. Leach called his last timeout of the half to set up a two-point conversion attempt. But Rogers’ pass for Lideatrick Griffin on a slant to the left was incomplete. That left Georgia with a skinny 17-12 lead at halftime.
“Very, very bad management of an end-of-half situation,” Smart said. “As bad as I’ve ever been a part of.”
The third-down play, he said, actually was a run-pass option in which Bennett chose to try to throw it. His sideline pass for Dominick Blaylock was too wide and fell incomplete.
“We were aggressive there. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t,” Bennett said. “I probably should’ve taken the sack (on a second-down throwaway), but that’s hard to do in the moment. But we came in at halftime and said we just needed to keep chopping wood.”
As it turned out, the Bulldogs would need only a couple of big whacks. On the second play of the half, McConkey took a reverse toss sweep left 70 yards for a touchdown. That made the score 24-12 only 47 seconds into the third quarter.
Less than five minutes later, McConkey would score again. His 17-yard touchdown reception over the middle was set up when Bennett hit Kearis Jackson for a 30-yard gain on third-and-8 to get the Bulldogs to the State 35. An interference call against linebacker State Nathaniel Watson got Georgia into striking distance. McConkey’s touchdown made the score 31-12 in Georgia’s favor with 9:19 remaining in the third quarter.
With that, any notion of an upset bid seemed to shrivel up in the cold, windy night.
“We wanted to take the momentum back,” said McConkey, who had five catches for 71 yards. “That was huge because you always want to score on that first possession of the second half.”
Tight ends Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington also had 2-yard TD receptions. Kendall Milton broke free on a 34-yard run late in the fourth quarter. Bennett also had a TD run early in the game.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Smart said. “You go on the road anytime in the SEC, you play in an environment like this one the road, with tremendous adversity. And our guys responded, again, again and again. ... Our team keeps getting better. I think we’re ascending at this time, and I was proud of the way they competed.”
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@