ATLANTA – The Georgia Bulldogs did all the customary things a team does in preparation for the SEC Championship Game rematch against Auburn.
Game tape study. Meticulous prep work. A few motivational talks.
But the Bulldogs’ 28-7 victory Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Dome was the result of a single focus from Kirby Smart all of the way down to special teams players.
That was Smart’s stated focus leading into the game, and the most repeated word in the Bulldogs’ locker room after the game.
“Physicality is the one thing we preached all week,” said offensive guard Ben Cleveland, who did not start in the first game at Auburn. “That was really what it was about, just going after it and just knocking people in the head.”
“We just wanted it, man,” said center Lamont Gaillard. “We had to come out and work and get our name back.”
Many Georgia fans took exception to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s off-camera remark (or so he assumed) moments after Auburn’s 40-17 humbling of Georgia three weeks ago, when Malzahn said, “We beat the dog crap out of ‘em, didn’t we?”
Whether Malzahn unintentionally motivated the Bulldogs is really irrelevant. They didn’t need any additional motivation. The fact is it’s hard to disagree with what Malzahn said. The Bulldogs were whipped, physically and mentally the first time they played.
“Walking off the field at Auburn was just a sick feeling,” tight end Isaac Nauta said. “We knew what we left out there.”
“It was tough last time because we knew we didn’t give our best performance,” said senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter. “We knew we had to leave it all out there today in order to get a championship, and that’s what we did.”
The Bulldogs’ first SEC championship in 12 years will seem secondary to the bigger prize at hand. They are considered a lock to land one of the four College Football Playoff spots what will be announced Sunday. Whether they’ll head to the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl is the only question, and one they weren’t concerned with Saturday night.
“We don’t concern ourselves with the rankings,” Smart said. “We never have. What does it really matter? If you’re one through four, you’re in the tournament. That was our goal, and that was what we achieved.”
The semifinal winners will be back here in Atlanta to play for the national championship. It has been noted once or twice that Georgia fired Mark Richt and hired Smart to win a national championship. The way the Bulldogs played Saturday reminded people why they were No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings until that loss at Auburn.
Theoretically, nothing changed with that loss. Either way, the Dogs would have had to win the SEC to make the playoff. But they looked nothing like a championship team in the first meeting. They were overwhelmed by the moment and just manhandled by Auburn.
As many in the national media started to proclaim Auburn as the best team in the country, Georgia quietly went back to work. They took care of business against Kentucky and Georgia Tech, which was essential but hardly convincing enough to regain their national respect.
They knew they had something to prove Saturday, even if only to themselves.
“Our mindset,” Carter said. “We just came in here with the mindset that we’re not leaving here without a championship. We’re not leaving here without a win. We know they handed it to us the first time, but that doesn’t make us lay down. You beat me once, I’m coming to you again. You beat me again, I’m coming to you again. We just knew we had that mindset – keep attacking, keep attacking. That’s what it came down to.”
Georgia dominated despite not having a back rush for 100 yards or having 200 yards passing. But the running game was balanced with Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and D’Andre Swift combining for 210 yards on 27 carries.
Jake Fromm, the freshman quarterback, was efficient, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns.
“Jake’s no ordinary freshman,” Carter said. “Anybody who has spent time around him knows he’s something special. He’s a great leader, great guy. I mean, he’s made for this. He’s made for big moments.”
So, apparently, is this team.