MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Turns out, there was no exposure of Georgia by Alabama last month in the Southeastern Conference championship game. No blueprint provided for others to use to beat the Bulldogs. No glaring flaws to be exploited in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Turns out, Georgia simply had a 60-minute meltdown Dec. 4 against a monster opponent who happens to be its nemesis. A bad day at the office. Then it was over, with no lasting damage to the season, and the Bulldogs went back to bullying Friday night.
Now we will find out whether that stunning SEC result will be replicated, or reversed, in the national championship game. Right now, this much we know for certain: Nobody outside of Tuscaloosa is close to Georgia’s level.
The Michigan Wolverines learned that truth in painful, humbling, mega-flopping fashion here Friday night. Georgia treated Michigan like it was Missouri, or any other SEC opponent not named Alabama.
Score from a dud of an Orange Bowl: Georgia 34, Michigan 11. It was over like a Tyson fight, an early knockout, 14–0 after the Bulldogs’ first two possessions, racing toward a 27–3 halftime lead. Georgia scored the first five times it got the ball. This was men vs. boys.
But this was less of a blunt-force beatdown than an aerial strafing built on a savvy gameplan by offensive coordinator Todd Monken and a brilliant performance by the maligned Georgia quarterback, Stetson Bennett. The Dawgs outflanked the Wolverines early with quick-game passing that neutralized Michigan’s pass-rush tandem of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. The ferocious bookend edge players had combined for 25 sacks this year, but they recorded zero Friday.
Several of those plays were called runs that Bennett checked out of, based on the Wolverines’ defensive alignment. “Stetson had to make a lot of decisions people aren’t aware of,” coach Kirby Smart said. “And he made good decisions.”
It was a numbers game at the line of scrimmage. When the box was too crowded, Bennett opted to take the ball outside it. “A bunch of those throws were run plays,” Bennett said, “and so I’d spin it out there on the edge.”
After spreading the field and attacking the flats, Georgia then went deep for two second-quarter passes of longer than 50 yards—Bennett to running back James Cook, then Bennett to receiver Jermaine Burton. They added a third long-ball TD in the second half, also Bennett to Cook.
It was quite a prove-it statement by Bennett, a former walk-on who has been declared not good repeatedly throughout his career, with a fresh layer of criticism after not performing well against Bama. The rap: He lacks the overall talent to beat good teams, and lacks the arm strength to stretch the field vertically. That storyline took a beating here.
By halftime, Bennett had completed 16 of 22 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He’d shredded one of the nation’s better defenses.
Michigan was eighth in the nation in yards allowed per play, at 4.71. Georgia nearly doubled that in the first half, averaging 9.17. For the game the average was 7.69, the most the Wolverines had allowed since the last time they played an SEC opponent—Alabama in the Citrus Bowl two seasons ago.
We now have a regionalized title tussle that exacerbates the nation’s SEC fatigue. The league is going to win its third straight natty, fourth in the last five years, fifth in the eight-season CFP Era, and 12th in the last 16 seasons. It just means more hardware.
Between Georgia winning by 23 and Alabama by 21, these semis were so lopsided that people actually started to miss Clemson. The CFP delivered 7 1/2 hours of New Year’s Eve boredom. The Big Ten’s last two playoff games against SEC opponents were both over in the first half, given Alabama’s annihilation of Ohio State last year.
After two more mismatches in a long line of them, we have a rematch of the 2017 championship game, a fourth impactful postseason meeting of the Tide and Dawgs in the last five years and a second game between the two in 37 days.
The college football postseason remains highly flawed, but the playoff itself is a ruthless—if repetitive—meritocracy. If the nation wanted to halt an all-SEC final, it had two chances to stop it Friday. Both failed badly.
And of the two teams that lost, Cincinnati acquitted itself better than Michigan did. At least the Bearcats were in the game well into the second half, whereas the Wolverines were in disarray almost immediately. Cincinnati is the one the elitists argued didn’t belong, but it was the better of the two losers. This was a pretty dreadful showing by the Wolverines, along the lines of its worst performances under Harbaugh against Ohio State.
Georgia was much better than Michigan in every phase of the game. After the first two possessions there was no real window of hope for the Wolverines to get back into the game, no conceivable path to victory.
But Smart wasn’t interested in much of a celebration after smoking the Wolverines. He vetoed a Gatorade bath from his players, preferring to view this victory as a prelude and not a coronation.
“I want to get focused on Alabama,” Smart said. “They got a five-hour, six-hour head start. To be honest with you guys, I’m not interested in celebrating that. We’ll look back in that win and that’ll be great, but we’re focused on the task ahead. I’m not focused on Gatorade baths.”
But Smart did allow that there was some “a little chip on the shoulder” of his defensive players taking on Michigan. They didn’t like Wolverines offensive coordinator Josh Gattis winning the Broyles Award as the outstanding assistant coach over Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. And they certainly took note of Michigan winning the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line.
The Wolverines’ offensive linemen arrived at Hard Rock Stadium wearing T-shirts that read, “Run the damn ball.” But slogans are cheap. Michigan’s renowned physical running game ran into the brick wall that is Georgia’s front seven, and the result was a season-low 88 rushing yards.
That was more like the Dawgs had performed defensively all season than their short circuiting against Alabama. They suffocated Michigan all night, keeping it out of the end zone for more than 55 minutes before allowing a late touchdown and two-point conversion.
But along the lines of their head coach refusing the Gatorade bath, the Georgia defense wasn’t ready to turn this victory into a wild celebration. The players all know that a large, imposing dragon remains unslain, and in their path.
“Champs not at all,” said linebacker Nakobe Dean. “Job not finished. We didn’t do everything we did all season just to win the Orange Bowl. Job not finished.”
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