Georgia’s the team to beat. But nobody’s beating Georgia

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart talks about the team's 50-30 win against LSU in the SEC Championship game. Video by Ryon Horne

Seventeen seconds into the second quarter, LSU had gained 158 yards. By way of contrast, Tennessee – the nation’s No. 1 offense – managed 289 yards over four quarters in Sanford Stadium a month ago. The Tigers had made three more first downs than Georgia, holding the ball more than twice as long. They looked pretty darn good.

They trailed 21-7. They would lose 50-30. LSU threw for 502 numbing yards, but not once over the final 32 minutes did it pull within two scores.

This is how the 2022 Bulldogs work. They’re not quite as overwhelming as last season’s national champions – few collegiate teams have run as deep as that one – but they have exquisite timing. They don’t make every play, but they make so many that every opponent winds up shaking its collective head.

The first quarter of the SEC title game had three minutes to run when CBS cameras caught LSU coach Brian Kelly … shaking his head.

Said Georgia coach Kirby Smart: ““You (media) guys have tried to figure this team out. These guys are not comprehend-able.”

LSU had moved deep into Georgia territory. A field goal would give them the lead in a game they entered as 17.5-point underdogs. Damian Ramos’ kick was blocked by Nazir Stackhouse, who didn’t have to leap. LSU players walked toward their sideline in frustration. The Bulldogs celebrated Stackhouse’s snuff.

Five minutes passed – OK, slight exaggeration – before Georgia’s Christopher Smith began looking at his mates, asking, “Isn’t that a live ball?”

Two Bulldogs waved their hands, signaling Smith to leave it alone. CBS cameras, which had a busy half, caught Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken waving from on high, offering the same advice. When Smith finally decided to lay hands on the oblate spheroid, Monken appeared to say: “What are you doing?”

What was Smith doing? Changing the scoreboard. His 96-yard return put LSU in arrears on a play that coulda/shoulda given it a lead.

Stung, LSU needed three plays to tie matters, Kayshon Boutte dashing 53 yards and breaking three tackles to score. Stung itself, Georgia whooshed 75 yards in seven plays to untie it. Stetson Bennett threw five completions – the first to Ladd McConkey, another to Kenny McIntosh, three more to Brock Bowers, the tight end who cannot be defensed.

On the second quarter’s first snap, LSU’s Jayden Daniels threw toward Jack Bech. Smith – who also was having himself a half – defended Bech, who succeeded only in knocking the ball upward. It bounded off the top of Bech’s helmet. Georgia’s Javon Bullard batted it. Smael Mondon caught it. Another, er, heads-up play.

The interception gave Georgia the ball at the LSU 22. Bennett dropped back. McConkey ran a slant. Touchdown. It was 21-7.

It would be 35-10 at the half. Georgia gained 223 yards in the second quarter. Remember how devastating LSU – with Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson – was in the 2019 SEC Championship game against Georgia? The final score that day was 37-10. It was 17-3 at halftime.

That LSU was maybe the best team of the playoff era. It went 15-0. If these Bulldogs match it, wouldn’t that make them … well, one of the best teams of the era? Georgia entered this season missing five NFL first-rounders, plus some excellent runners and receivers, but here it stands – 13-0, the SEC champion, the No. 1 seed for what comes next.

Smart: “I haven’t paid any attention to what’s been going on. I haven’t had any games on. ... My focus was on this. I told the guys, ‘I don’t want anybody who comes through our program to leave without an SEC ring.”

For a few moments Saturday, it was possible to wonder if Georgia’s semifinal opponent will be you-know-who. TCU and USC, Nos. 3 and 4 in the latest rankings, lost in conference finals. No. 5 Ohio State seems destined to move into the top four, but what of No. 6 Alabama? It carries two losses and no conference title, but it’s, you know, Alabama. Then reality reared its noggin.

TCU is 12-1, having gone 5-1 against ranked opponents, having lost in overtime in the Big 12 final. Alabama is 3-2 against the Top 25. It lost to Tennessee and LSU, teams that have since lost four games between them. Bama’s not jumping the Horned Frogs.

It will be fascinating to see where the committee places TCU. If it’s No. 3, it will face Michigan. (This assumes the Wolverines will beat Purdue.) At No. 4, the Frogs would play Georgia – and the Glendale semi would pair Michigan and Ohio State for the second time in a month. For novelty’s sake, the better course would be to make Ohio State No. 4.

We’ve spent a few autumns, this one included, wondering how Georgia would fare against the Buckeyes. We should have our answer soon, though I have mine already.

Near the end Saturday, the no-frills Bulldogs even allowed themselves to show off. On a 2-point conversion, Bennett pitched to Adonai Mitchell, a receiver, who threw to tight end Darnell Washington. A season that began in this building with Georgia scoring 49 points against Oregon just saw the Bulldogs hang half a hundred on LSU. Nobody’s beating these guys.

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