ATLANTA — Georgia hired Kirby Smart two years ago with the goal of competing for SEC and national championships. The Bulldogs won one Saturday and are about to get a chance to play for the other. Here are three thoughts from Georgia’s 28-7 win against Auburn in the SEC title game:
1. Georgia should have a chance to win its first national title since Herschel Walker’s freshman season in 1980. Barring a shocking ranking from the College Football Playoff selection committee, Saturday’s win will put Georgia into the four-team bracket. Where the Bulldogs will be seeded will depend on the results of Saturday night’s ACC and Big Ten championship games. Georgia last won the SEC in 2005. In 2012, the Bulldogs came up just short against Alabama with a trip to the BCS title game hanging in the balance. This time, the Bulldogs will get a chance to see how they stack up against the best the nation has to offer.
Smart insisted that a rematch against Auburn would turn out quite differently if the Bulldogs could just eliminate the silly mistakes they made in a 23-point loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 11. The Bulldogs didn’t eliminate those mistakes Saturday. They killed their own drives, wiped away an interception and handed Auburn yards with penalties. The game turned out quite differently anyway.
The Bulldogs, who gained 1.4 yards a carry in their first meeting, averaged 6.0 a carry on Saturday. Meanwhile, the offensive line shook off an early possession in which it gave up two sacks to provide much better protection for freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who completed 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards. Meanwhile, Auburn’s offense struggled to run with its top two backs (Kerryon Johnson and Kam Martin) limited by injuries. After averaging 5.2 yards a carry in the first meeting, the Tigers averaged only 3.6 on Saturday. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham (16 of 32, 145 passing yards) gave Auburn a chance, but without a dynamic running game, the Tigers struggled to fool Georgia’s defense.
2. Two plays deep in Georgia territory cost Auburn points and gave Georgia momentum. In the second quarter, Bulldogs linebacker Davin Bellamy stripped the ball from Stidham on the Georgia 16-yard line. Linebacker Roquan Smith recovered, and the Georgia offense marched 84 yards on seven plays. Fromm capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Isaac Nauta. (Smith also would recover a Johnson fumble early in the fourth quarter).
With Auburn trailing 10-7 the third quarter, Daniel Carlson’s 31-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Georgia defensive tackle DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle. The Bulldogs didn’t capitalize on their next possession, but they did tack on a Rodrigo Blankenship field goal later in the quarter.
3. So what happens next for the Bulldogs and Tigers? Georgia will learn its destination and opponent in the playoff semifinal early Sunday afternoon. Clemson (if the Tigers beat Miami on Saturday night) or Oklahoma (which whipped TCU 41-17 on Saturday to win the Big 12) are the likely candidates for the No. 1 seed. In either case, the No. 1 versus No. 4 game would take place in the Sugar Bowl and the No. 2 versus No. 3 game would take place in the Rose Bowl.
The question now is where the Bulldogs will be seeded. If Clemson beats Miami, Georgia likely would get slotted at No. 3 or No. 4. The Bulldogs last played in the Sugar Bowl in the 2007 season. They last played in the Rose Bowl in the 1943 season.
Auburn, meanwhile, will wait to see where it is ranked. The Tigers were the nation’s hottest two-loss team, but how will the committee treat it as a three-loss team? Since two of those losses are to Georgia and Clemson and the other is to 9-3 LSU, the Tigers may not be docked much by the committee. It also helps that Auburn’s best win is against 11-1 Alabama, which could be the most impressive victory among the teams vying for spots in the New Year’s Six bowls. The highest ranked SEC team that doesn’t make the playoff will go to the Orange Bowl, so if the Tigers are ranked ahead of the Crimson Tide, that’s where they’ll go. If not, they could wind up back in Mercedes-Benz Stadium facing UCF in the Peach Bowl. If they don’t make a New Year’s Six Bowl, they would wind up in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.