ATLANTA — On the first play of the fourth quarter, Georgia did what it had done all day. It swarmed Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson and swiped at the ball. Finally, it came loose. And shortly after that, as Georgia scored yet again to take full control over the SEC championship game, more than a decade worth of Bulldog frustration had ended.
Georgia is going to the College Football Playoff after an impressive 28-7 victory against Auburn, reversing the Tigers’ complete domination when they played three weeks ago.
Georgia ended the SEC’s East’s eight-year championship drought by playing sound, opportunistic, physical football and getting a near-perfect performance from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm.
For Georgia (12-1), it’s the first SEC title since 2005 in Mark Richt’s second season, matching what Kirby Smart did Saturday by winning it in his second year. It’s also the first time anyone besides Alabama or Auburn has won it since LSU in 2011.
Here are four observations from the Bulldogs’ victory:
1. Georgia could be a handful in the Playoff
By avenging their only loss to Auburn and beating top-25 teams in Notre Dame and Mississippi State, you could make an argument that the Bulldogs should be the No. 1 team when the playoff rankings come out Sunday morning. It should at least be a discussion for the committee. Either way, Georgia looked very much like a team that could win it all. And can you imagine what kind of frenzy it will cause in Atlanta if Georgia is back in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8 trying to win its first national championship since 1980?
Hey, it’s not that far-fetched. Georgia had one bad game this year, 11 dominant victories and a steel-sharpening 20-19 win at Notre Dame. This is a very good team with a defense that held Auburn’s powerful attack to 257 yards. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs ran for 238 yards on 41 attempts (including one kneeldown from victory formation) and didn’t commit a turnover. If they can carry that recipe into the playoffs, they could very well win it all.
2. Turnabout is fair play
This was a completely different game from Nov. 11 when Auburn pushed Georgia around at the line of scrimmage in a 40-17 win at Jordan-Hare Stadium. That day, Auburn pretty much did as it pleased, racking up a 488-230 advantage in yards and rattling Fromm once it was able to bottle up the run game. So what changed in the rematch? You could point to a few things. First and foremost, Georgia just flat-out played better and tougher up front, closing those big holes the Auburn offensive line created in the first meeting. Sure, running back Kerryon Johnson’s shoulder injury suffered against Alabama may have had something to do with that. He didn’t look like the same player and finished with 44 yards on 13 carries.
But give credit to Georgia, because there just wasn’t much running room between the tackles, and that put a lot of stress on Auburn’s passing game. It’s also possible Auburn was a little bit worn out having to come back and play Georgia one week after a tough, physical, emotional win in the Iron Bowl. That back-to-back takes a toll. And third, this wasn’t Jordan-Hare Stadium. The big question for Auburn was how well it would transfer that energy it played with at home to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which was technically a neutral field but realistically more of a pro-Georgia environment. Auburn, it turns out, was very much a different team at home.
3. Auburn’s missed opportunities and mistakes killed the Tigers
Everything was going the Tigers’ way early. They marched down the field 75 yards on their first possession, and seemed almost certain to add onto their 7-0 lead on the third possession. But then disaster struck. With 13:04 left in the half, Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy knocked the ball loose from Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham on a third-down scramble in the red zone.
So instead of Auburn going ahead 10-0 at worst, Georgia seized the momentum. After gaining just 28 yards on its first two possessions,
Georgia responded with a seven-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that kind of put the Bulldogs in control for good.
Auburn had another massive mistake with 8:13 left in the third quarter. Trailing 10-7, the Tigers were set to try a 31-yard field goal to tie the game. Instead, Georgia’s DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle got his hand up to deflect the kick.
Getting zero points out of a 10-play, 60-yard drive and a nine-play, 66-yard drive were too much to overcome in a game where Georgia was more opportunistic and didn’t commit a turnover.
4. The Gus Bus will roll on to… somewhere
It’s no secret Arkansas covets Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, a native son whose future on the Plains seemed rocky until he knocked off Georgia and Alabama last month to win the SEC West. Of course, had Auburn won Saturday and made the Playoff, it’s unlikely Arkansas could have waited around for his season to finish. Now, however, Malzahn is free to talk to the Razorbacks. Does Malzahn really want to go to Arkansas? Who knows.
It’s a tougher place to contend for SEC and national titles, but Malzahn could re-start his clock after a roller coaster five seasons that saw him come within seconds of the championship in 2013, go through an offensive slump that put him on the hot seat, then coach himself off it this year. Arkansas will offer him a pile of money, and maybe it will come down to whether Auburn satisfies his wishes on an extension. Either way, stay tuned.