The Georgia Bulldogs entered last night's game as a team with something to prove. Many questioned whether or not they would show up mentally and emotionally prepared for the Sugar Bowl after once again finishing just outside the top 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Would the Dawgs turn in a repeat performance of last season's disinterested loss to the Texas Longhorns?
We got our answer fairly early in this football game as George Pickens lit up the Baylor Bears defense to the tune of 11 catches for 165 yards in the first half alone. The Dawgs gained and never relinquished the lead following first of Rodrigo Blankenship's two field goals with just 0:49 left in the first quarter.
Here are our five key takeaways from tonight's win:
1.) The Georgia Defense Remains Real:
Without J.R. Reed and Tyler Clark - two of the more vocal leaders on the Georgia defense - the Bulldogs managed to hold Baylor to a season-low 14 points. Baylor put up 32.6 points per game in the Big 12 prior to last night's game and had scored at least 30 points in 7 of their 12 games.
Bears head coach Matt Rhule said in his press conference this week that Georgia's defense would be far and away the best team they've faced all season and he was correct.
3 sacks, 7 TFLs, a forced fumble, and two interceptions. Those are the havoc plays that Georgia has been in search of all season. The majority of the key contributors tonight were underclassmen as well. In fact, the only senior that recorded a tackle tonight was Tae Crowder. All the rest in the box score will likely be returning next season.
2.) George Pickens is REAL:
We said all the way back in July that if Georgia was going to be successful this season, they were going to need George Pickens to make an immediate impact as a freshman, and he saved the best performance for the last. 12 catches for 175 yards, the most of any Bulldog Receiver since Tavarres King had 188 yards against Kentucky back in 2012.
He's got more touchdown receptions (8) than any other freshman in the country and he finished the season as Georgia's leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns.
It's not just the gaudy numbers though, it's the fact that as a true freshman there are moments in every football game where #1 in Red & Black seems to be the best player on the field. Enjoy the next two seasons of Pickens because he will likely be playing on Sunday's for quite some time.
3.) Kirby Smart Continues to Win Big Games:
(7-4) against Top-10 opponents as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, and though some fans want that to be a perfect (11-0), he's winning more than he's losing. However, this season it wasn't a Top-10 loss that killed Georgia's national title hopes - despite losing to top-ranked Tigers in convincing fashion in the SECCG - it was the South Carolina loss at home that kept Georgia on the outside looking in.
4.) Richard LeCounte is the definition of a ball hawk:
Georgia created 15 turnovers as a defense this season, Richard LeCounte was responsible for 7 of them, including two interceptions in the Sugar Bowl win. LeCounte still has an NFL Draft decision looming and according to LeCounte, it's something that he really hasn't given much thought toward.
Assuming he comes back he will help lead a Georgia defense that could somehow be even better next season.
5.) The Future is Bright:
That Baylor team was no joke. Sure, they lost to an Oklahoma team twice this season. The same Oklahoma team that got smoked by LSU the other night, but that doesn't take away from last night's feat. To have 13 key contributors missing from this contest and to thoroughly dominate the game from start to finish goes to show what kind of depth that Georgia has. The type of depth that only comes from elite recruiting, and Kirby Smart and staff are not done yet.
With the college announcements from the likes of Darnell Washington, Zach Evans and Kelee Ringo on the way in the next few days - and all three likely joining Georgia's 2020 recruiting class - they could very well have yet another top-ranked class.