ATLANTA — Its invincibility shredded and the College Football Playoff bracket haunted by the presence of its nemesis, Georgia faces a massive reckoning and regrouping between now and Dec. 31. The Bulldogs certainly should remain in the field, but they have gone from heavy national title favorite to heavily doubted in the span of a single miserable Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“The outside noise begins now,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, and he’s right about that. Let the shrieking begin.
Can Georgia ever win the big one?
Can Georgia ever beat the Crimson Tide?
Can Georgia ever keep a lead against the Crimson Tide?
Can Smart ever beat Nick Saban?
Can Georgia ever win a championship with Stetson Bennett at quarterback?
Can Georgia’s once-dominant defense get its mojo back after being shockingly shredded?
The response had better be emphatic and effective, or the Bulldogs’ excruciating 41-year national championship drought will extend to 42. Fans who had invested heavily in this team emotionally—and in Southeastern Conference title game tickets—wandered out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium early, leaving stunned and disillusioned.
“[The blowout loss] didn’t do any damage,” Smart said, leaping into damage repair mode. “It re-energized us. That’s an opportunity for a wakeup call.”
The Georgia faithful would love to wake up from this recurring crimson nightmare. The Tide had done it to them again—the seventh straight win in the series, with three of those in the SEC championship game and one in the CFP championship game, and with three of them coming after the Bulldogs led by double digits. Saban had done it to Smart again, as Nick’s longtime protégé again failed to press the right buttons at the right time in terms of game management. The Bulldogs had been dramatically outplayed at quarterback in a big game again.
Georgia had an opportunity to evict Bama from the bracket and didn’t get it done. The antagonist lives, still standing as a potential roadblock to a Georgia national title.
After taking a 10–0 lead and seemingly having momentum slanting heavily in its favor, everything turned on a single play early in the second quarter. Facing a third-and-2 at its own 33-yard line, the Georgia-heavy crowd roaring, Alabama’s transcendent Bryce Young dropped back to pass. What he saw was an incredible gift in the middle of the field—his top wide receiver, Jameson Williams, was all alone. Young put the ball on Williams’s chest, and the human blur of a transfer from Ohio State outran everyone to the end zone.
To that point, Alabama hadn’t had a play longer than 13 yards. From that point forward, the Tide rolled to 10 plays of 15 yards or longer, a whopping seven of them in the second quarter as what had been the nation’s best defense was utterly routed.
Georgia came in leading the nation in just about every defensive category. It exits with third-degree burns. Georgia was allowing 6.9 points per game; Alabama nearly sextupled that. Georgia was allowing 150.8 passing yards per game; Alabama rang up 421. Georgia was allowing 229.7 total yards per game; Alabama gained 536.
Georgia came in averaging 3.4 sacks per game and recorded zero for the first time since October 2019. One element clearly missing is leading pass rusher Adam Anderson. He had five sacks through Georgia’s first eight games, then was arrested on a rape charge and is not expected to play again this season for the Bulldogs.
Without getting the customary heat on the quarterback, Georgia’s weakest defensive link was exposed at cornerback. Those soft spots were exacerbated by glaring missed assignments, which helped Alabama convert seven of 14 first downs. “On two or three third downs, we had a bust and cut a guy loose,” Smart said. “We hadn’t done that all year.”
Asked about what adjustments he’d make in a potential rematch, Smart pointed directly at the blown coverages that got ‘Bama going. “The first answer would be don't leave people uncovered, you know what I mean? Like that's the first objective. Let's cover them, and then try to win some one-on-ones and get balls down. Because look now, they're going to throw and complete balls. They're really good at doing that. At the end of the day, you have to put a body on a body and cover them. Some of the plays we gave were gifts. “
Young probably won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, in part because he accepted those gifts when offered but also by making spectacular athletic efforts to keep plays alive. He ran for 40 yards and a touchdown but also scrambled away from negative plays. Georgia was never able to corral him and force the kind of mistakes that could lead to a defensive feeding frenzy.
“Look, guys, I’ve seen a lot of good [quarterbacks] in this league,” Smart said. “He’s special.”
And on the other end, Georgia’s quarterback was distressingly ordinary. Stetson Bennett IV is a great success story and he’s had an excellent season, but he’s the latest in a line of Kirby Smart QBs who are not wired to win shootouts—and inevitably in modern football, there will be a shootout or two along the way to a national championship.
Bennett threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns, but he also threw a pair of damaging interceptions. That’s now five picks for Bennett in two games against Alabama.
Whether it was Jake Fromm playing in front of Justin Fields or now Bennett playing in front of USC transfer JT Daniels, Smart has tilted toward playing the game manager over the big-play guy. Now Smart has to decide whether to make a quarterback switch in the Playoff.
“We have a decision to make every week at every position, but I have the utmost confidence in Stetson Bennett,” Smart said. “I think he did some really nice things tonight. We go and reevaluate everything all the time, but he played well.
“It's a tough environment we put him in defensively and we have to be able to run the ball and have a little bit of semblance of balance, and I felt like there was times tonight where we were getting into a scoring contest because our defense didn't get stops. And you don't want to have to do that. But I certainly have a lot of confidence in Stetson, and I have a lot of confidence in JT too.”
Georgia fans might not share that confidence—in their quarterbacks, in their defense, or in their head coach. The Bulldogs’ stellar regular season gave them the cushion to lose this game and still remain in Playoff contention, but their hopes of slaying the Alabama monster and riding into the Playoff as the favorite were shattered Saturday.
“We’ve got a lot to work to do,” said linebacker Nakobe Dean.
The team with all the answers is being questioned once more.
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