Photo |Courtesy of University of Georgia athletics
For 37 days, Georgia’s football team waited for its chance to play Alabama again, waited for the chance to avenge its SEC Championship Game loss to the Crimson Tide. And when the opportunity arrived, the Bulldogs ended another wait, this one 41 years old, and did so in convincing fashion.
No. 3-ranked Georgia, scoring 20 fourth-quarter points and 27 points in the second half, overcame a 9-6 halftime deficit and an 18-13 fourth-quarter deficit to claim a 33-18 win in the College Football Playoff (CFP) championship game Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
It marked the Dawgs’ first national title since 1980 when head coach Vince Dooley, a Mobile native, led the Dawgs to the national crown with the help from All-America running back Herschel Walker.
What’s more, the Dawgs claimed the national crown with a stifling defense that allowed only three rushing touchdowns all season long and a former walk-on at quarterback in Stetson Bennett IV.
“I hope they don’t have to wait that long again,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said at a Tuesday morning press conference of the timeframe between national titles. “I’ll be honest with you, that’s a long time. I know as a young child, moving from Alabama at the age of 7 or 6, I didn’t know much about Georgia. I grew up [in my] early years in Alabama and the years that I got to come to Georgia, those were the first memories, the ’81, ’82 teams that didn’t win it but were really special.”
As to the season his team produced, going 14-1 and holding the No. 1 ranking for much of the year, Smart, who served as defensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama prior to taking the Georgia job, where he played his college career, said, “I think we gave [the fans] a lot to be proud of during the last couple of years. … I thought that our team demonstrated resiliency, fight, toughness — overcoming a tough loss.
“There were a lot of battle cries throughout the year that our guys really kind of personified for the state and for the people of the state. And that and what the [Atlanta] Braves did [winning the World Series] made it a special year.”
The scenario of the game was interesting, to say the least. Alabama had the top ranking in the final College Football Playoff rankings, but Georgia, ranked No. 3, entered the game as the favorite with oddsmakers. Alabama played the role of underdog for the second time this season, both times against Georgia. The Bulldogs didn’t win the SEC championship, but they claimed the national title. Georgia became the first No. 3-ranked team to win the CFP national championship game in its eight-game history. The top seed has won twice (2020, 2021), while the No. 2 seed has won three times (2016, 2017, 2019) and the No. 4 seed twice (2015, 2018).
It was a field goal-kicking exhibition at the start, with Alabama, which finished the season 14-2, holding a 9-6 lead at halftime, all points scored on field goals. Georgia broke through with a 1-yard touchdown run by Zamir White in the third quarter to take its first lead at 13-9. Alabama kicked another field goal to trim the Georgia lead to 13-12, then took the lead back at the 12:59 mark with a 3-yard scoring pass from quarterback Bryce Young to tight end Cameron Latu. A two-point conversion try failed, leaving the Tide in front 18-13.
The Dawgs would reclaim the lead in less than two minutes, when Bennett tossed a 40-yard scoring pass to Adonai Mitchell in the end zone. The two-point try failed, leaving Georgia ahead 19-18. Later, Georgia would tack on a 15-yard scoring pass from Bennett to tight end Brock Bowers and a 79-yard Pick Six interception return by Kelee Ringo, sealing the outcome with 54 seconds to play.
Both teams were 100 percent in scoring once they reached the red zone, Alabama going 4 for 4 and Georgia 3 for 3. The difference was a pair of touchdowns by the Dawgs outside the red zone and the fact all of Alabama’s scores but one from inside the red zone were field goals.
“The fact that we were undefeated going into the SEC Championship Game, favored, and then they whipped us straight up,” Bennett said. “And we had to look in the mirror. We had to wonder why. We had to fix stuff. And then we did. And then we got to see them again. And there’s still stuff that we struggled with, but at the end of the day it was a team win and we won the game. So you know, at the end of the day it’s the national championship. Does it matter who it’s against? No, not to me. Not really.”
The SEC has now produced the past three CFP national champions with three different teams — LSU in 2020, Alabama in 2021 and Georgia in 2022. The league has won the CFP national title in five of its eight title games, with Alabama also winning in 2015 and 2017.
“I think Kirby has a lot of respect for us,” Saban said after the game. “He did a great job for us for a long time. If we had to lose a national championship, I’d rather lose one to one of [my] former assistants who certainly did a great job for us and has done a great job for his program and his team.
“If any team deserves it, they deserve it. They played great all year. We were the only team to beat them, in the SEC Championship Game, and we just couldn’t finish the game tonight like we wanted to. But I think Kirby has done a really, really good job there. I congratulated him on the win. I’m really proud of him and I’m proud of the way he’s been able to coach his team and the consistency that they’ve played with all year.”
Georgia became the third team in the past 11 seasons to win the national championship without having won its conference championship. Alabama was the team that accomplished the feat the other two times.
The celebration for Georgia players, coaches and fans is not expected to subside for some time. After all, they’ve been waiting for this moment for quite a while.
“Coach Dooley, seeing him after the game, it’s very emotional for me to see him,” Smart said. “And then Coach [Ray] Goff who signed me, and Coach Dunn, who coached me, and Coach [Mark] Richt, who I worked for and I have a tremendous amount of respect for and he got so close so many times. There’s a lot of people that it means a lot to. I am happy for them, and that so many of them are happy for me.”
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