A tale as old as time: UGA leads Alabama by 10 - and loses

Georgia football-2022 SEC championship-lsu

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) is sacked by Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman LaBryan Ray (18). Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Maybe next time, huh? Maybe next month in Indianapolis for the national title. Maybe that will – once and forever – be the time Georgia beats Alabama in a game of significance. We thought the moment would come Saturday. Yet again, we thought wrong.

Alabama entered the SEC Championship game against No. 1 Georgia as a 6-1/2-point underdog, something the Crimson Tide hadn’t been since 2009. As always happens when these teams meet, the Bulldogs built a lead. As always happens when these teams meet, Alabama won. Final score: 41-24.

Said Nick Saban, speaking of us sweethearts in the media: “You gave us a lot of positive rat poison (in noting that Alabama wasn’t favored). That rat poison is usually fatal. This rat poison you gave us this week was yummy.”

In the grand scheme, losing shouldn’t mean much to Georgia. It still will make the College Football Playoff, just not as the No. 1 seed. Thing is, Alabama will make it, too. Georgia hasn’t beaten Bama since Sept. 22, 2007, seven meetings ago.

Georgia under Kirby Smart has done everything except win it all and beat Alabama. There seems no way the Bulldogs can manage one without the other, and it’s entirely possible that a rematch could favor the Bulldogs. (Why? Who knows? Law of averages, maybe.) But Saturday’s game looked for all the world like Georgia’s long-awaited day of deliverance, and it came undone faster than you can count Saban’s title-winning rings.

“It didn’t do any damage,” Smart said of the loss. “What it did was reinvigorate our energy. ... It was a great wake-up call.”

For the fourth time in nine years, Georgia built a double-figure lead over Alabama in this city. Given the outcome of those first three games, Smart might have been prudent to ask kicker Jack Podlesny to miss the PAT on purpose. The kick sailed true. Georgia led 10-0 four seconds into the second quarter.

At that moment – this has seemed true of other moments in this series – the Bulldogs looked too good for Bama. George Pickens, back after a torn ACL, outfought safety Jordan Battle for the gain that set up Georgia’s first touchdown. The 6-foot-7 tight end Darnell Washington reached above linebacker Henry To’oTo’o to pluck Stetson Bennett’s throw from on high to score that touchdown.

Bennett completed eight of his first 10 passes for 126 yards. Georgia outgained the Tide 156 yards to 49 in the game’s first 15 minutes and four seconds. The Bulldogs couldn’t have scripted a better start. Somehow, though, this movie always ends the same way.

Jameson Williams, Alabama’s best receiver, flashed unencumbered down the middle of the field and turned a modest pitch-and-catch into a 67-yard touchdown. It was wretched coverage by any defense. By Georgia’s standards, it beggared belief. This 10-point lead was about to go the way of all Georgia leads against Bama.

Asked afterward what he might say to his team if Georgia and Alabama meet in the playoff, Smart said: “The first answer would be, ‘Don’t leave them uncovered.’”

Then: “We had two or three busts on third down. That’s unlike us.”

Unhappy Georgia fans after their team falls behind in the third quarter of the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide.   Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

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Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

The team that yielded no more than 17 points in a game over 12 games was outscored 24-7 in the second quarter. The Bulldogs entered having yielded 230.9 yards per game. Alabama amassed 316 yards in these 15 minutes. Bryce Young threw for 286 yards and ran for 40 more. He had a hand in all three touchdowns. The nation’s best defense managed no sacks in the half, or the game.

Said Smart: “You have to affect the quarterback. You have to get to him and finish. He’s so good at avoiding the rush that he buys time to make plays downfield.”

A signature moment came when Nakobe Dean, the highly decorated linebacker, bore down on Young and slammed into him as the quarterback threw. A near-sack became a 22-yard completion.

Said Dean: “They’ve got great players, and they made great plays.”

Not two minutes into the third quarter, Bama led 31-17. Williams ran past Lewis Cine and snagged Young’s rainbow. Georgia trailed 31-17. It faced its first double-figure deficit since Cincinnati led 21-10 in this building on New Year’s Day.

The Bulldogs took their time in responding. Two drives took them beyond the Alabama 20. Neither ended in points. Bennett threw an interception on the first. The second ended on the quarter’s final play, a Bennett incompletion on fourth-and-9. (Going for it, as opposed to kicking a field goal that would have left Georgia 11 points behind, was the right choice. It just didn’t work.)

Remember when Alabama used to be known for its defense? With Young following in the gilded footsteps of Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones and Georgia’s defense having surrendered next to nothing all season, nobody gave Bama’s defense much of a look in the run-up to this game. On Georgia’s first series of the fourth quarter, Bennett threw for Kenny McIntosh, who wasn’t open. Battle cut in front and took his interception the distance. It was 38-17 with 11:59 remaining.

For the record, Smart was asked if he might – if this sounds strange, you haven’t followed the wayfaring career of Stetson Bennett - consider changing quarterbacks for the playoff. (JT Daniels never moved off the sideline Saturday.) Said Smart: “I have the utmost confidence in Stetson Bennett. He did some really nice things today.”

Back to the game, or what was left of it. Brock Bowers, the tremendous tight end, scored to bring the Bulldogs within 14. Saban opted not to go for it on fourth-and-1. Enough time remained for Georgia to score two touchdowns, but a false start turned fourth-and-10 into fourth-and-15, which prompted Smart to change his mind and punt. Bama took the ball with 7:08 remaining and began to move – slowly, for once. A field goal with 1:59 left removed all doubt.

Young finished with 421 yards passing against the nation’s No. 1 defense. Alabama heads to the playoff for the seventh time in eight years. And Georgia? Well, the Bulldogs do as they’ve done many times. They pick themselves up and try to imagine some way they can beat Alabama. It has to happen sometime, doesn’t it?

Don’t answer that.