ATLANTA — Sometime after Georgia blocked a field goal attempt and then almost slow-motioned its way to a touchdown return, and after the Bulldogs intercepted a pass that bounced off an LSU player’s helmet, and after Jalen Carter mutated into some modern-day Hulk and held Jayden Daniels up in the air with one hand while flashing a No. 1 sign with the other — like a cartoon triple feature — something became clear Saturday.
This was about more than just a game. This was about more than just staying undefeated or winning an SEC championship. This is about chasing history.
“I feel like we all feel like we have something to prove from last year,” tight end Brock Bowers said. “People said before the year that we weren’t going to be as good because we lost all those players, but we have a chance to do something different this year, like win an SEC championship. We want to do something special.”
The Dogs are 13 games down that special road. They haven’t lost. They hung 50 on LSU in Saturday’s SEC title game, and it could have been worse. They wanted to make some noise after one of the quietest buildups to an SEC championship that anybody could remember, given the lack of playoff ramifications, because what’s on the table are things people potentially will talk about generations, like “Sit on my knee, junior: Let me tell you a story” kinda stuff.
Two more wins and Georgia will go undefeated through a season for the first time since 1980. Two more wins and it will have captured consecutive national championships, a first since Alabama in 2011-12. That’s where Georgia is now — with Alabama. Actually, ahead of Alabama, which won’t even be in the playoff field.
What makes this all even more remarkable is Georgia wasn’t supposed to be here in the eyes of many. The Bulldogs lost 15 players to the NFL Draft, including five first-rounders. That’s all it seemed everybody talked about before the season. They missed something.
“For me and Chris, it took us a while to get here, right?” quarterback Stetson Bennett said as he sat next to safety Chris Smith. “There’s really no option but to play well now, right? When things start going bad, what are you going to do? Stop? Like no. We knew how hard it was to play for Georgia. So now we’ll do almost anything to win. I think we have a lot of older guys like that.”
This is all Kirby Smart’s doing. It’s his dream. A team wins a championship, loses star players and leaders, and rather than return the following season with a hangover or a sense of entitlement, it actually comes back with renewed motivation. It would be an upset if Georgia doesn’t win another title at this point. The team celebrated afterward but almost with a sense of “We expected this. What’s next?”
“I’m proud of them,” Smart said. “This has been a different group. You guys have tried to label them, tried to figure ’em out, tried to analyze ’em. They’re not comprehendible. They do what they have to do, and they do it well. They care about each other, and they really do it for each other.”
The Bulldogs lost Travon Walker, Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean. They lost Quay Walker, Lewis Cine, Devonte Wyatt, George Pickens, James Cook and others.
“It doesn’t matter who’s playing, who’s in, who’s out,” center Sedrick Van Pran said. “Everybody is a faceless player. It’s all about this,” and he pointed to the small “G” patch on his collar.
This game wasn’t close but it also wasn’t dull, starting with the first scoring play of the game: Georgia’s Nazir Stackhouse blocked a field goal attempt. The ball rolled to the Georgia 5-yard line. Smith looked at the ball, then looked around. Smart half-joked the team’s rule is “you’re not allowed to touch it unless you score.”
Well, Smith picked up the ball, unbeknownst to some teammates who were high-fiving each other after the block, and unbeknownst to all 11 LSU players who started to walk toward the sideline, with their backs to Smith — and he raced 96 yards for a touchdown.
Later in the half, just seconds after Bowers caught a TD to make it 14-7, a Jayden Daniels pass bounced off the helmet of an LSU wide receiver and the ball fell into the hands of linebacker Smael Mondon at the Tigers’ 22. The freak bounce set up a touchdown pass to Ladd McConkey on the next play.
Mondon on the ricochet: “It’s like it was in slow motion. I saw the ball bounce up — it seemed like it was just floating there. It felt like a dream.”
Jalen Carter is POWERFUL.
(?: @NFLRookieWatxh) pic.twitter.com/CJHd4LRcwJ
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 3, 2022
The loudest punctuation of a 35-point first half: Carter, who may be a top-five draft pick, not only sacking Daniels but also picking him up in the air with his arm wrapped around him and simultaneously throwing up the “We’re No. 1” sign with his other hand.
Smart credited Carter for not going all WWE and throwing Daniels to the turf.
“Fortunately, we don’t let him do that to Stetson in practice, or Stetson would be in pieces,” he said.
The Falcons would be just fine if he stayed in the building.
The Bulldogs toyed with the Tigers. They’ve had some hiccups this season, but they’ve been great when they have had to be great. At this point a year ago, there were some questions about whether Georgia was Playoff-ready. Alabama had just slapped the defense in the SEC title game and Bennett threw two crucial interceptions, one for a pick six. In this game, he was 23-for-29 with four touchdown passes.
Nobody is wondering about him now, or this team.
(Photo of Georgia’s Jalen Carter holding up LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels during the SEC title game: Jeffrey Vest / Icon Sportswire via the Associated Press)