It doesn’t matter if Georgia spends New Year’s Day in New Orleans or Pasadena. All that counts is the No. 6 Bulldogs (12-1) are going to the playoffs.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs erased any doubt that they are one of the top four college football programs in the nation. By the time D’Andre Swift squirted loose for a 64-yard score early in the fourth quarter, it was lights out for No. 2 Auburn in the SEC Championship and the precursor to a major celebration for Georgia on the field at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Winning the conference championship, 28-7, will likely get the pollsters attention as they weigh Sunday which spot Georgia will receive. It was Georgia’s most dominant showing in a big setting since it crushed Hawaii for victory in the 2008 Sugar Bowl. However, this one is so much sweeter — it keeps those national title hopes alive.
Now, every fans turns their attention to the television as the entire Bulldogs fanbase awaits the bracket to see whether they’ll play the semifinals at either the Sugar Bowl or Rose Bowl. It doesn’t matter yet who the opponent is. Whether it’s Clemson, Oklahoma or anyone else who may sneak in, it’s going to be a bruising battle.
For all the years that Georgia couldn’t finish when it had a chance to achieve greatness, this one could be the exception. The Bulldogs are one step closer. Even though it feels like the Bulldogs won it all Saturday, this is just a huge step toward a championship run that wasn’t expected in 2017.
Before everyone gets carried away with the possibility of winning it all, there should be a substantial amount of time set aside to celebrate what the Bulldogs have accomplished. The Bulldogs will not play again for 30 days. There’s plenty of rest for players, too, before practice cranks back up for the semifinals.
With Georgia almost guaranteed to get one of the four semifinals spots, it’s already been a season of meteoric rise in the expectations of the Georgia football program.
Second-year coach Kirby Smart brings no-nonsense discipline, a byproduct of coming from Nick Saban’s coaching tree at Alabama, as Georgia carved its way through the regular season with the only blemish being the 40-17 loss at Auburn, three weeks prior to winning the conference championship.
The Bulldogs are resilient, as shown by shaking off highly-questionable penalty calls in the Tigers’ favor in the first half. All year, Georgia’s defense has played at a level not seen since 2002.
Georgia’s biggest task against Auburn was to slow running back Kerryon Johnson, who torched the Bulldogs for 227 yards of offense the last go-round. This time, the Bulldogs were much more successful getting hats to the ball in Atlanta, holding the banged-up Tigers’ running back to 44 yards. It was a closely-guarded secret whether he would even play after leaving injured against Alabama last week.
Johnson played but clearly not at 100 percent.
Auburn didn’t have any plays that went for more than 20 yards.
Meanwhile, the second-half offensive fireworks for the Bulldogs were just as crucial. Leading 13-7 in the third quarter, freshman-phenom quarterback Jake Fromm found Terry Godwin in the end zone for a 3-yard catch and 2-point play to follow.
Georgia’s first touchdown was also a pass, off a run fake in the second quarter, as Fromm found former Buford High standout Isaac Nauta in the end zone.
Georgia’s ability to overcome the early penalties was probably the most important thing that transpired in the first half. Bulldogs wide receiver Javon Wims was called for a pass interference, even though he was pushed to the ground in the scrum near the line by Tigers defenders, which resulted in a touchdown pass being waved off.
Earlier in the game, Georgia was flagged for a late hit on quarterback Jarrett Stidham, even though it looked like a textbook tackle just after the ball was released.
Those plays could have given the Tigers some room to build a little separation, especially after claiming an early 7-0 lead.
However, Georgia took the points from a couple of Rodrigo Blankenship field goals, and built a 13-7 lead before the Bulldogs opened up the passing game.
On the other side, Auburn’s sure-footed Daniel Carlson had a 31-yard field goal blocked early in the third quarter.
Typically composed Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham was hurried all day, throwing for just 145 yards and completed just 50 percent of his throws.
It was, no doubt, Georgia’s day to shine. And, most importantly, those national championship dreams are still alive.
Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Bill_Murphy on Twitter.