In Mark Richt’s second season at Georgia, he took a wounded program that had teased, wept or otherwise self-immolated for most of two decades and led it to its first SEC championship in 20 years. The Bulldogs hadn’t merely become watchable again. They became relevant.
In Kirby Smart’s second season at Georgia, he took a program that hungered to punch through the ceiling and get to the next level and did exactly that. Richt’s firing understandably divided the fan base. But this season has validated that decision.
Three weeks after being dismembered at Auburn, the Bulldogs on Saturday morphed back into the team that their tormented fan base has been dreaming of. The defense slammed the door after an opening-drive touchdown and forced two fumbles. The offense, stuffed and held to 46 rushing yards at Jordan-Hare Stadium, trampled Auburn for 238 yards in then rematch.
They won 28-7. Confetti fell on them in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which was christened with its first SEC Championship game. In 2012, confetti fell on the Dogs as they were sprawled at Alabama’s 5-yard line following a loss. This was better.
“Dan Quinn called me (Friday) and said they already painted all of the seats red and black for us,” Smart said.
For the first time since 2005, they are SEC champions.
For the first time since 1982, they won a conference title with a chance to win the national title.
For the first time in too long. Georgia fans can celebrate today -- not just what’s happening now but what could happen in January.
“It’s crazy,” said tailback Nick Chubb, who along with Sony Michel, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter bypassed the NFL draft after the depressing 2016 season for one more shot at moments like this. “We just talked about what we want to do, and it all paid off. This is what we’ve worked for.”
Take nothing away from the players. Take nothing away from a defense whose stars Saturday included Roquan Smith (15 tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries), Bellamy (sack, forced fumble) and Carter (forced fumble).
But Kirby Smart did this.
He was an assistant coach under Richt in 2005 when the Bulldogs won their second conference title in four years. He called this championship “special,” but quickly added, “I’ll tell you what’s special to me is seeing Terry Godwin and Roquan Smith hugging on the stage in tears.”
He talked about the physical and “psychological stamina” needed to win an SEC title. He talked about pressure.
Former Auburn great Bo Jackson walked up to Smart during the pregame.
“He was my childhood idol,” Smart said. “I had Bo Jackson posters, baseball cards. I had 300 baseball cards of Bo Jackson. He came up to me and said, ‘A lot of pressure, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘yeah it is.’ But this is why we do this -- for moments like this.”
The Bulldogs won their most recent national title in 1980. They lost the Sugar Bowl to Penn State as the No. 1 team two years later. But when the four-team playoff field is announced Sunday, they will be in the field for the first time.
Bellamy and Carter returned for their senior seasons for this. It’s only fitting they came up with two of the game’s biggest plays.
First quarter: Bellamy’s sack/strip of Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham at the Georgia 16 with Auburn leading 7-0 smothered a certain scoring drive and started a Bulldogs’ possession that culminated in a tying touchdown.
Fourth quarter: With Georgia leading only 13-7 and Auburn near midfield, Carter knocked the ball free from Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson -- or at least what was left of him – and for the Tigers’ second turnover. For the second time, the Dogs drove to a touchdown. That was pretty much it, save the spectacular window dressing of D’Andre Swift’s 64-yard touchdown run.
This wasn’t the same Auburn team that twice upset No. 1 teams (Georgia and Alabama) in the past three weeks. Johnson, who shredded Georgia 233 yards from scrimmage last time, played wounded after suffering a shoulder injury last week. His total output Saturday: 45 yards.
But this also wasn’t the same Georgia team of three weeks ago. It was the team of most other weeks this season – the one that went into South Bend and won with a freshman quarterback in his first start, the one that rolled through SEC East opponents without a loss.
The main event of conference-championship Saturday was plagued by way too much early audio and visual by the game’s officials. The teams were called for seven penalties in the first half, a few of which appeared imaginary. Georgia was flagged seven times for 91 yards.
Georgia had an offensive pass-interference call -- a perceived “pick” play by Javon Wims -- negate a 2-yard touchdown pass to Godwin, forcing it to settle for a field goal and a 10-7 halftime lead; and a facemask penalty negated a Deandre Baker interception.
But this time, mistakes and setbacks were minor obstacles. Georgia now awaits its ranking and to see whether it will play in the Sugar Bowl or Rose Bowl semifinal.
Said Smart, “We don’t concern ourselves with rankings. We never have. What does it matter? We’re in the tournament.”