ATLANTA — If earning high praise from the media or being an underdog by the oddsmakers is rat poison for the Alabama Crimson Tide, then playing the Crimson Tide must be strychnine for the Georgia Bulldogs.
After cruising to a 12-0 record and sitting atop the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings since the beginning of November, the Bulldogs suddenly looked like the second-best team in their league after a 41-24 loss to the Crimson Tide in Saturday’s SEC championship game.
It was Georgia’s seventh straight loss to Alabama, including four at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in either the SEC championship game or CFP national championship. Georgia coach Kirby Smart fell to 0-4 against his former mentor, Alabama’s Nick Saban.
It was an all-too-familiar outcome for Georgia fans against the Crimson Tide.
“It didn’t do any damage,” Smart said. “What it did was reinvigorate our energy. It re-centers you, right? Their greatest thing is when [the Tide] lost their game against Texas A&M, they garnered some focus and some attention. To me, that’s an opportunity for a wake-up call, if anything.”
Despite the humbling defeat, the Bulldogs are still expected to be among the four teams chosen for the playoff on Sunday (noon ET, ESPN and ESPN App).
“That’s not for us to determine that, you know what I mean?” Smart said. “Certainly, I feel like we are, but it’s not our job to determine that. It’s the committee’s.”
After surrendering just 6.9 points per game in the first 12 games, the Bulldogs’ vaunted defense was gashed for points on five straight possessions by the Tide. Alabama had 536 yards of total offense; Georgia had been surrendering 231 per game before Saturday. The Bulldogs hadn’t surrendered more than 17 points to an opponent until playing the Tide.
Georgia had 449 yards of offense, but quarterback Stetson Bennett threw two interceptions, including a pick-six in the second half. The Bulldogs went just 3-for-12 on third downs.
“I’m disappointed [with] how we played,” Smart said. “Give Alabama a lot of credit. Give their defense and Bryce Young and their offensive skill players a lot of credit. They played really well, very accurate, explosive, and [Young] is hard to get down on the ground, which caused us a lot of problems defensively. But we can’t turn the ball over and give up 60- and 70-yard passes and expect to be successful. For the most part this year, we’ve executed well. We didn’t execute well tonight, and that had a lot to do with them.”
Alabama’s offensive success against Georgia was surprising because the Tide struggled to move the ball in their last game, a 24-22 victory in four overtimes at Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
“The narrative out there was, well, they just went to Auburn and they really struggled,” Smart said. “Some of the sacks they gave up, their attackers didn’t even get out of stance. The crowd noise was a major impact there. Auburn played [man-to-man coverage] almost every single play, and they won a lot of the battles we didn’t win tonight.”
Georgia struggled to get pressure on Young, who threw for 421 yards with three touchdowns on 26-for-44 passing. It was the highest passing total in SEC championship game history. Tide receiver Jameson Williams had seven catches for 184 yards with two scores.
“He’s a great player,” Bulldogs linebacker Nakobe Dean said of Young. “We knew that coming in. He’s very elusive. He runs the offense well. He did a good job keeping his eyes downfield and avoiding our pass rush. I feel like the pass rush and the recovery’s got to work hand in hand. Him being able to keep his eyes downfield and make certain throws really helps them.”
Georgia can only hope that history repeats itself from 2017, the last time they reached the CFP. During that season, the Bulldogs were flattened 40-17 at Auburn in their only loss of the regular season. They came back to defeat the Tigers 28-7 in the SEC championship game.
Depending on what the playoff bracket looks like on Sunday, Georgia might get yet another shot at Alabama.
“We just didn’t play our best game today,” Bennett said. “They did. Can’t turn the ball over. Just little mental lapses. That can’t happen. We’re going to work starting [Sunday]. Hopefully get ready for whoever we play next.”