In a primetime loss to Alabama, Georgia's margin for error disappears to reach SEC supremacy, Playoff
You have to give Georgia credit: for parts of Saturday night, Kirby Smart’s group looked like it was poised to chase away a few of the bad memories of a 5-game losing streak to Alabama. The defense, while not perfect, bent but didn’t break, while some key offensive plays kept it neck-and-neck with its nemesis.
Then, it got in its own way.
Three Stetson Bennett IV interceptions later — coupled with both DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle going over 160 yards receiving and Najee Harris cranking out 152 yards on the ground on a career-high 29 carries — the story between the 2 teams appears to be the same as it’s been for much of the past number of years. The streak is now 6 games, with Nick Saban now 22-0 against former assistants after yet another dominant 2nd-half performance.
But how did we get here in the first place? How did things end up going so wrong for the Dawgs in a game where, at least for a while, things were looking good?
One of my biggest fears was Bennett, and if he’d try to force things rather than let plays come to him. After the good times were rolling over the first 3 games since replacing D’Wan Mathis in the opener against Arkansas, the former walk-on crumbled when the pressure increased later in the game, completing just 18-of-40 passes on the evening to go along with his 3 picks.
It wasn’t so much the interceptions; it’s more to do with when those interceptions were thrown. With the Tide up 27-24 following Mac Jones’ 90-yard bomb to Jaylen Waddle — Tyson Campbell’s still rumored to be looking for him, by the way — Bennett’s pass over the middle with the Dawgs looking for a go-ahead touchdown was picked off by Malachi Moore.
Five plays later, Alabama scored a touchdown.
Then, on the Bulldogs’ next drive, Bennett found himself flushed out of the pocket in a key 3rd-down scenario and made an errant pass, essentially to Daniel Wright, who returned it 18 yards.
Ten plays later, Alabama scored a touchdown.
Sensing a pattern here? This was the perfect night for Bennett to rise to the occasion and silence his critics. Instead, he appeared shaky and tentative at times, unable to make enough plays and assert himself as the leader of this offense.
It wasn’t all on Bennett. The secondary, needing to be perfect on the night to erase the impact of Alabama’s dynamic pass-catching duo, was anything but as both Smith and Waddle rolled up spectacular numbers. Eric Stokes was rung up on 2 holding penalties, one coming on a 2nd-and-15 on Bama’s touchdown drive that followed Bennett’s 3rd interception. Campbell couldn’t keep up with the speed of Waddle when placed 1-on-1 with the receiver. Meanwhile, Georgia’s vaunted run defense, its crown jewel, wasn’t close to being as effective as it normally was as Harris shone.
Harris’ 152 yards continued a theme, too. From 2017 through Saturday, Georgia has only allowed 4 rushers to top 100 yards, but the Dawgs are 1-3 in those games.
There were a few bright spots. Kendall Milton had a strong night, with the true freshman from California showing that he deserves more involvement in this offense. Bennett connected with James Cook for a nice 82-yard touchdown in the first half, with the junior having a stellar return after being hampered by a shoulder injury. That was a beautiful play call, with Cook lined up out wide against an Alabama linebacker. Bennett easily recognized the speed mismatch and threw a beautiful ball.
The result of the night, though, wasn’t good enough. Georgia hasn’t given up 41 in a game since the 2018 Rose Bowl Game against Oklahoma. (Granted, that was one of the biggest wins in program history, but you get the picture.) Its last time allowing 41 or more in a loss was against Ole Miss in 2016, Smart’s first season in charge. For a team that prides itself in defense, “bend, don’t break” turned out to not be a sound strategy against an offense like Bama’s.
Fortunately for the Dawgs, they have an unexpected bye week thanks to a schedule shakeup on Friday. Then comes a high noon kickoff in Athens against Kentucky on Oct. 31, with Florida looming a week later.
And they can still consider themselves in relatively good shape in the SEC and Playoff races, all things considered. But the margin of error has become razor-thin: A 2nd loss, regardless of the opponent, means those dreams will go up in smoke altogether.
To be clear, not all hope is not completely gone for Georgia. This is a team that has an excellent chance to be playing in Atlanta on Dec. 12 — and for a couple of games longer than that.
But while the top of the SEC and college football mountain is in sight, it still has a bit of a way to finally reach the top.