Under a blue sky on a warm late-November afternoon, Georgia (12-0) advanced unscathed into its SEC Championship game date against No. 5 LSU at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, accomplishing a program first – back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. Reaching the conference champion without a loss likely ensures that the Bulldogs can afford to lose in the conference title game and still be granted a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The team’s 22 seniors honored on Senior Day played their final home game and now stand 46-5, breaking the team record for wins by a class, set by the 2021 class.
“Great regular season for this group,” Smart said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do, and they only get bigger from here.”
A week after a near-flawless performance spurred an upset of then-No. 13 North Carolina, Tech (5-7) was left to depart Sanford Stadium ruing the many mistakes that ultimately may not have affected the final outcome, but quickened the Jackets’ demise. They included a dropped pass in a wide-open secondary, a personal-foul penalty, a mishandled punt snap and a lost fumble. The first helped snuff a hopeful Tech possession early, the second gave Georgia a 15-yard head start on its first scoring drive and the latter two led directly to 10 UGA third-quarter points.
“We had a couple of mistakes on some drives with the drops and a special-teams mistake that we can’t have in big games like that, especially when you know it’s going to be a field-position game, and they have an explosive offense,” interim coach Brent Key said.
Tech coaches, players and fans now await the naming of a full-time head coach and the completion of a well-cloaked coaching search led by athletic director J Batt. An answer could come as early as Sunday. The four likely candidates appear to be Key, Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell, Tulane coach Willie Fritz and Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. Saturday’s game brought to an end the eight-game term of Key as the interim, which he completed with a 4-4 record.
“To get a chance to be the head coach of my alma mater for the last eight games is very special,” Key said. “It’s very special to coach a group of kids like that. To do what those kids have done and play as hard as they’ve played, even until the clock hit zero out there (Saturday) is such a credit to the kids and the leadership in that locker room and the leadership throughout the week that they give to each other.”
The Jackets have an outside chance at continuing on to a bowl game if there aren’t enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the 82 slots, which appears to be a possibility. After the game, Smart and Key exchanged a tight hug at midfield. The two have been friends and respectful adversaries dating to their days playing for their respective alma maters. Saturday’s game was the first since 1927 in which both teams were coached by alumni of the respective schools.
“Georgia Tech, Brent, I give a lot of respect to their staff,” Smart said.
In claiming the Governor’s Cup Trophy for the fifth game in row, Smart’s team has outscored the Jackets 134-21 in the past three meetings. After the game, as the Bulldogs congregated on the field, multiple players held aloft whiteboards proclaiming “WE RUN THIS STATE.”
Taking the field as 36.5-point underdogs and given a 1.3% chance of pulling the upset, by ESPN metrics, Tech gained the first advantage of the afternoon by taking the opening kickoff and advancing 75 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Key signaled his team’s go-for-broke mentality by going for it on fourth-and-9 from the Georgia 41-yard line, a move that paid off with quarterback Zach Gibson lofting a deep ball for receiver Nate McCollum to run under for a 34-yard completion and first-and-goal from the 7. Backup quarterback Taisun Phommachanh ran it in for an easy score from seven yards out on second down. It was the first first-quarter touchdown that the Bulldogs had allowed this season and only the third game this season in which Georgia has trailed.
“Walking through it (at practice), we felt very comfortable with the plans going in,” Gibson said. “We executed on the first drive, and we just couldn’t sustain after that.”
The lead lasted almost 18 minutes in game time. UGA kicker Jack Podlesny banged home a 30-yard field goal and then quarterback Stetson Bennett found receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint for a 5-yard touchdown pass with 7:59 left in the second quarter for a 10-7 lead. The Bulldogs led the rest of the way. The 80-yard drive was boosted by a 45-yard sprint by running back Kenny McIntosh through a pried-open Tech defensive line.
After its score on its opening drive, the Jackets went empty in their next nine possessions against the FBS leader in scoring defense until running back Dontae Smith found wide receiver Malachi Carter for a 24-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-1 play with 2:55 remaining in the game for the final 37-14 score.
“I wouldn’t say they were more ready to go than we were, but I would definitely say the things they were trying to do schematically were definitely answers to a good amount of things that we were sending at them – throwing balls on the perimeter, just good runs and good pass concepts and things like that,” Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo said. “Being able to come back and find answers to those is something that we need to be able to do.”
In between Tech’s two scores, Georgia reeled off 37 consecutive points, with Bennett directing the Bulldogs offense to scores on the first five possessions of the second half. On Senior Day, Bennett completed 10 of 18 passes for 135 yards and two touchdown passes with no interceptions. He also led an offense that avoided a turnover until the second-to-last drive when the game was well out of reach.
“We don’t care who gets the shine, who gets the glory,” Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey said. “If we’re running it well, then run the ball. We’re happy either way as long as we get a win.”
Georgia 37, Georgia Tech 14
Georgia finished with 406 yards of total offense, 268 gathered on the ground. Tech gained 255, almost a third of them acquired on the opening drive. McIntosh was responsible for 177 of the Bulldogs’ yards. Early in the fourth quarter, with Tech desperately trying to stay in the game down 23-7, McIntosh opened the margin for Georgia as the Bulldogs exploited a blitz that left him one-on-one with defensive end Keion White on a wheel route. McIntosh caught Bennett’s pass down the sideline for a 78-yard reception to set up a touchdown (scored by McIntosh on a 2-yard run) that upped the score to 30-7 and removed all lingering doubt about the outcome.
To pull off the upset, the Jackets direly needed to win turnover margin – they came into the game plus-11 – but were even, with both sides losing one fumble each.
That ratio doesn’t include a costly botched punt in the third quarter, when Tech punter David Shanahan was unable to cleanly field a low snap and was tackled for a loss and change of downs at the Tech 17 on the Jackets’ opening drive of the third quarter. Ahead 13-7 at the time, Georgia scored on fourth-and-goal from the Tech 1-yard line on a play-action pass from Bennett to tight end Brock Bowers for a 20-7 advantage that effectively closed the door on the Jackets.
Tech’s hopes plummeted further on its next play from scrimmage, when running back Jamie Felix fumbled the ball away, with UGA linebacker Robert Beal recovering at the Tech 25. Podlesny’s third field goal of the day raised the lead to 23-7 with 1:33 to play in the third quarter.