Playoff? Playoff?! Georgia silences doubters -- at least for a week
Any questions now?
Maybe “can Stetson Bennett IV figure out how to connect on a read route?”
That’s seriously it. Save for a couple of first-half miscues between the Georgia quarterback and his wideouts, the Bulldogs in one week went from severe scrutiny to something much closer to supremacy in their 27-6 victory over Auburn on Saturday.
“Wow,” Dawgs coach Kirby Smart said on Georgia’s radio network afterward. “I never would’ve thought it’d be that way with all the explosive playmakers they’ve got. But our kids take a lot of pride in the way they compete.”
This had all the makings of another classic rendition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry: No. 4 UGA vs. No. 7 Auburn, under the neon lights between the hedges, College GameDay in Athens.
Then came the opening kickoff.
A week after flailing in the first half against Arkansas, the Dawgs wasted little time in asserting their dominance.
Georgia has won 8 of the programs’ past 10 matchups. Auburn hasn’t won at Sanford Stadium since 2005.
It never ceases to amaze how teams with elite aspirations can improve the week after their season opener. This year’s was especially taxing for every Power 5 team after a COVID-disrupted offseason and delayed start to an all-SEC schedule. Save for a couple penalties on its opening drive, UGA’s offense was crisper and more menacing, while the fellas on the other side looked even more like the nation’s top scoring defense from a year ago than it did in a 37-10 Week 1 against the Razorbacks.
By the way, that finish doesn’t look the same given how Sam Pittman’s group handled Mike Leach and Mississippi State on Saturday night, does it?
Georgia committed 11 penalties for 98 yards in the first half a week ago, so its staff harped on details all week during practice. The result was a punishing performance from an offensive line that was called into question during the week.
— CFB Kings (@CFBKings) October 4, 2020
With the Dawgs’ quarterback situation so fluid, FOX’s Bruce Feldman reported they likely wouldn’t play recently-cleared JT Daniels because he’s not as mobile as Bennett or D’Wan Mathis. “They have concerns about their offensive line right now,” Feldman reported.
Smart’s not a guy who’s ever satisfied. But he can’t be as worried after the performance left tackle Jamaree Salyer, left guard Justin Shaffer, center Trey Hill, right guard Ben Cleveland and right tackle Warren McClendon put in, mauling Auburn’s touted defensive line all evening.
That allowed Georgia to simply line up in the I-formation and pound it between the tackles, with running back Zamir White. The sophomore responded in kind, delivering as many hits as he took and rarely going down on initial contact.
White finished with 88 yards and 2 touchdowns on 19 carries.
And even down preseason All-American safety Richard LeCounte due to a first-half targeting penalty that sent receiver Shedrick Jackson’s mouth guard airborne, Georgia’s defense made sure this one was never in doubt. The Tigers rushed for just 39 yards, passed for 177 and converted just 6-of-15 3rd-down attempts.
Georgia preseason All-American Richard LeCounte was just ejected for targeting on this mouth-guard dislodging hit pic.twitter.com/yg1sOFxmQB
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) October 4, 2020
Nix was never comfortable, often running for his life — sometimes due to a well-oiled 4- or 5-man pass rush, others simply because he bailed too early.
Thanks to lockdown coverage from Tyson Campbell, superstar Auburn wideout Seth Williams caught just 3 passes for 34 yards. Outside linebacker Adam Anderson had 2 of Georgia’s 3 sacks on the night.
Nix is going to have a special impact on this conference by the time he’s done at Auburn. But Saturday, he still looked like the true freshman he was a year ago.
Instead, it was Bennett who played like a guy with a full season of SEC experience under his belt like Nix possesses. But this was Bennett’s first start after taking over for a struggling Mathis last week.
And after his solid, steady, 17-for-28, 240-yard performance Saturday, it should be Bennett’s job to lose moving forward.
The Dawgs offense did throttle down during the second half after going up 24-0 in the first. An enhanced killer instinct would behoove this team as it gets further into the schedule.
But Georgia’s biggest issue Saturday might have come in the stands. Fans could be seen on ESPN packed together in spots, many without masks. That drew the ire of many on social media and could bring in a reprimand from SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.
The crowd shots at the UGA game are really something. Time for another terse Greg Sankey memo? pic.twitter.com/9vU0NBUutV
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) October 4, 2020
Saturday’s attendance was announced at 20,524, well below the 23,000-25,000 limit put in place by Georgia and the SEC before the season. It looked like considerably more than that.
“It felt like 93,000 of my best friends,” Smart said on the radio. “Just some of them were invisible.”
When it comes to football in this coronavirus-plagued campaign, though, the question now becomes “can Georgia sustain this?” Another Top-25 opponent awaits next week in Tennessee, followed by the true test of the Dawgs’ contender status: Oct. 17 at Alabama.
The No. 2 Crimson Tide rolled 13th-ranked Texas A&M on Saturday and looks every bit capable of returning the College Football Playoff as expected this season.
Might Georgia join Bama there? It’s easy to overreact after one solid performance, but consider this: the Big 12’s chances at a participant took another hit when No. 9 Texas lost to TCU and No. 18 Oklahoma fell to Iowa State on Saturday. With the Big Ten and Ohio State not starting for 3 more weeks and still a wild card, 2 SEC Playoff teams is looking more and more likely.
Not that long ago, it was presumed Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman would be leading this Georgia team on that quest. So the fact that Bennett — who took a backseat to Mathis and Daniels in the preseason QB competition — is where he is renders Georgia living proof that anything can happen.