ATLANTA — It had been 12 years since Georgia fans got to celebrate a championship.
After Saturday’s 28-7 beatdown of Auburn in the SEC Championship Game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Dawg Nation can finally pull out that dusty bottle of champagne.
The Georgia defense, humiliated three weeks ago in a 40-17 loss to the Tigers, dominated the Auburn offense in The Rematch led by an inspired effort from junior and SEC MVP Roquan Smith. After a touchdown opening drive, the Tigers went their final 10 possessions with no points, two turnovers, and one huge momentum-changing blocked field goal.
Smith had 13 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries, and two quarterback hits to lead a Georgia defense that resembled its early-season form of hitting hard and often.
It was a far cry from the 488-yard effort Auburn hung on them in the regular season matchup. They yielded just 259 total yards this time and just 145 yards rushing instead of the 237 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“The defense I thought did a much better job of keeping the edges on their running plays. But I thought the real key to the game was getting pressure on the quarterback and getting us to third down,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who orchestrated a championship run in just his second season in Athens.
The Tigers were just 4-of-13 on third down and averaged just 4.1 yards per play on Saturday after averaging 6.8 ypp in the first meeting.
Smith, who is the fifth defensive player to earn the award and the second straight, said it was just a matter of not losing focus. He said his two fumble recoveries, which tied an SEC Championship game record, were almost like practice-simulation.
“We knew they’d make plays but we just tried to stay focused and keep chopping,” he said. “(on the fumbles) I just saw the ball on the ground and it reminded me of all those times in practice when we did the scoop drills. It just came to mind to get what I could. Those were big plays for sure.”
Meanwhile, the Georgia offense, behind an efficient Jake Fromm, scored the final 28 points, including a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns in a 2:30 span to blow the game open.
Fromm finished 16-of-22 for 183 yards and two touchdown passes in the biggest game of his young career.
Smart said Fromm did what he was asked to do.
“I can’t say enough about Jake and his ability to run the offense,” Smart said. “Those are good numbers for a freshman in his first SEC title game. He just knows how to manage a game.”
While Fromm was managing the offense, senior Nick Chubb pounded his way into the SEC record-books with 77 yards on just 13 carries to pull into second-place all-time in rushing in the SEC, trailing only fellow Georgia-great Herschel Walker.
“It’s just a blessing and a lot of hard work but really it’s more of a team thing. The offensive lines have done a great job over the years making things happen,” Chubb said.
The only real blemish to the day was a slew of early penalties (7-91 yards) that kept the Tigers opening drive alive twice and then negated two promising Georgia drives in the first quarter.
But once Fromm found sophomore tight end Isaac Nauta in the back of the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter to tie the game, Georgia took the momentum and ran away with it. Smith would force a quick throw by Stidham for an incompletion on the Tigers next possession and Rodrigo Blankenship capped an 8-play, 58-yard drive with a 27-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead late in the second quarter the Dogs never relinquished.
But, the game was still very much in doubt in the third quarter when Auburn forced a Georgia punt on its opening possession. Then Stidham engineered the Tigers best drive since its first of the game moving to the Bulldogs 15 with what looked a sure bid to either tie the game or take the lead. But Stidham was stopped on a third down run and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt by Daniel Carlson to keep the slim lead.
After trading punts, Blankenship extended the lead to 13-7 with a 35-yard field goal late in the third quarter.
Just moments into the fourth quarter, Lorenzo Carter and Smith combined for the game-changing play when Carter stripped the Tigers’ Kerryon Johnson and Smith returned it 9 yards to the Auburn 39. Four plays later Fromm connected with Terry Godwin on a 7-yard touchdown pass and the pair connected again on a 2-point conversion to push the lead to 21-7.
The defense again forced a quick three-and-out and freshman D’Andre Swift swiftly sealed the game with an electrifying 64-yard sprint through and around the Auburn defense for what would be the final score. Georgia finished with 238 yards rushing, more than making up for the 46-yard output in the first meeting.
Now, the Bulldogs, who sat sixth in the College Football Playoff standings coming into the game, will have to see if the Selection Committee feels they are one of the final four teams to play for the National Title.
Smart scoffed when asked if his Bulldogs should once again be No. 1 and about where they should be in the final CFP rankings. He said they’ll think about all that around 12:30 p.m. on Sunday.
“That’s a bold statement to say we should be No. 1,” Smart responded. “But truthfully it doesn’t really matter where you are as long as you’re in the top four. I guess we’ll have to wait until then to find out.”
Georgia.....0....10....3....15 -- 28
Auburn.....7......0....0......0 -- 7
A -- Craig-Myers 6 pass from Stidham (Carson kick) 7-0, 9:54
G -- Nauta 2 pass from Fromm (Blankenship kick) 7-7, 10:14
G -- Blankenship 27 FG 10-7, 4:59
G -- Blankenship 35 FG 13-7, 1:26
G -- Godwin 7 pass from Fromm (Godwin pass) 21-7, 13:06
G -- Swift 64 run (Blankenship kick) 28-7, 10:34