Georgia Bulldogs at rarified heights, challenge is to finish No. 1

© John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
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ATLANTA — Georgia finds itself in a most unusual position.

No. 1.

For the first time since the 1982 season, when a guy named Herschel Walker starred at running back, the Bulldogs hold the top spot in The Associated Press rankings during the season.

Now, the challenge is to stay there.

“It’s just a number, right?” coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “I don’t see a plateau. The goal is to be number one at the end of the season. You always know that.”

Led by a ferocious defense that has allowed just two touchdowns and 26 points, the Bulldogs (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) climbed to No. 1 after defending national champion Alabama was upset by Texas A&M.

The Bulldogs were a unanimous choice in the AP poll.

Georgia hasn’t been top dog since the 2008 preseason poll, a spot they surrendered even after winning their opening game.

One must go back nearly four decades to find the last time the Bulldogs were No. 1 during the season.

In 1982, Georgia moved to No. 1 in early November after a 44-0 win over Florida and held that spot for the final two games of the regular season, setting up a 1-2 showdown with Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.

The Nittany Lions prevailed 27-23 to claim the national championship.

Georgia hopes to finish the job that long-ago team failed to complete, though its a much-different era. The regular season is now 12 games instead of 11. The SEC championship game provides another potential roadblock. And it takes two playoff victories to win a national championship.

“Everybody’s goal is there, but to have an opportunity to do that you have to be in the top four,” Smart told reporters at his weekly news conference. “That’s the most critical part. We won’t get caught up in that, let you guys write about it. That’s not a burden we carry. The burden we carry is how we play.”

Still, the No. 1 ranking carries plenty of gravitas.

As if to remind the Bulldogs where they are and what they’re chasing, former coach Vince Dooley – now 89 years old – attended Smart’s media briefing.

Dooley remains the only coach to guide Georgia to an undisputed national championship, way back in 1980.

There have been a few close calls since then.

Under Mark Richt, the 2002 Bulldogs finished No. 3 with only a single loss, an upset by Florida that ruined their national title hopes. Georgia made another run in 2007, also under Richt, but wound up No. 2 in the final AP poll.

Most notably, Smart led the Bulldogs to the national title game against Alabama at the end of the 2017 season. The Crimson Tide rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit and won 26-23 on Tua Tagovailoa‘s walk-off, 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime.

The Bulldogs are only concerned with this season.

Sure, there’s plenty of excitement surrounding the No. 1 ranking, but Smart and his players insist they won’t get caught up in the hype – especially with a crucial game against No. 11 Kentucky (6-0, 4-0) coming up Saturday.

The winner of this game will be in prime position to capture the SEC East title.

“That drives me to keep it neutral, to keep it the same,” senior linebacker Adam Anderson said. “Don’t try and change it up, don’t try and be someone you’re not, don’t let being No. 1 influence how you play them. A lot of people get over their head a little. We don’t need to start playing different.”

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops praised the powerhouse that Smart has built during his six years in Athens.

“What Kirby has done there and the team that he has put together, you see why they’re ranked the number one team in the country and leading and dominating in the defensive statistical categories,” Stoops said. “And playing extremely well offensively. Will also hurt you at any given moment in special teams. They’re playing very well in all areas.”

The big question hanging over the Bulldogs is the status of No. 1 quarterback JT Daniels, who missed the last two games with a right lat injury.

It hasn’t been much of an issue so far. Senior Stetson Bennett did a solid job filling in and the defense ensured that neither game was close. Without Daniels, Georgia blew out Arkansas 37-0 and Auburn 34-10.

Smart wouldn’t say whether Daniels will be able to play against Kentucky.

“We are trying to get JT back,” Smart said. “We’ll look and see how he is and where he is. See what he can do. That’s always the case. I’m not getting into that. Right now, I’m making sure that we have a healthy quarterback and keeping our quarterbacks healthy, by keeping them upright and protected.”

Pratt accounts for 5 TDs, Tulane tops UCF 45-28 to win AAC

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

NEW ORLEANS – As Tulane receiver Shae Wyatt watched jubilant fans streaming onto the field, he couldn’t help but reflect upon how far his team had come since finishing last season 2-10.

“It’s definitely surreal,” said Wyatt, whose two touchdown catches were no small part of why a celebratory scene so hard to conceive of a year ago was unfolding around him. “Seeing all the other schools with their success, and having their fans storm the field – eventually, everybody wants that.”

Michael Pratt accounted for 442 total yards and five touchdowns, Tyjae Spears highlighted his 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score and No. 18 Tulane beat No. 22 UCF 45-28 on Saturday night in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

The victory virtually assured Tulane (11-2) would play in the Cotton Bowl – its first major New Year’s Day bowl since the 1939 season.

A full hour after the game, Tulane players were still in uniform, walking back to the field from the locker room to pose for photos with teammates, some with cigars in hand. Spears joked that his elbow was sore from fans pulling on him for a congratulatory embrace.

“It was an amazing feeling, man,” Spears said. “That’s something that will stick with us for the rest of our life.”

And Wyatt suggested that Tulane’s remarkable turnaround should serve as a lesson.

“They were just throwing dirt over us and for a while it was hard to bounce back,” Wyatt said of last season, during which Tulane was displaced by Hurricane Ida to a Birmingham hotel for a month, and plagued with injuries to prominent players.

“If you keep your faith and you believe in your brothers that are next to you, flowers will grow. I promise you,” Wyatt said. “I hope this is a testament to anybody out there.”

Pratt passed for a career-high 394 yards, including touchdowns of 73 yards to Duece Watts, 60 and 10 yards to Wyatt and 43 yards to Lawrence Keys. Pratt also ran for a pivotal 18-yard touchdown with 4:04 left.

“It was awesome to close out that game and have those fans so fired up,” said Pratt, named the game’s most outstanding player.

Spears electrified the record crowd of 30,118 at Tulane’s cozy, on-campus Yulman Stadium with his long scoring run, on which he broke two tackles near the line of scrimmage, made two other defenders miss and hurndled his own fallen teammate after cutting back inside.

The Green Wave, which earned the right to host the title game by ending Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak last weekend, avenged a 38-31 regular-season loss to UCF (9-4) on the same field on Nov. 12.

But UCF was not quite the same team because of QB John Rhys Plumlee‘s nagging hamstring injury, which appeared to rob him of the explosiveness he displayed by running for 176 yards in the previous meeting.

Plumlee struggled enough early on that coach Gus Malzahn pulled him in the second quarter in favor of Thomas Castellanos. But with Tulane up 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Malzahn put Plumlee back in as primarily a passer – and he nearly led the Kights all the way back.

“He’s one of the toughest players I think I’ve ever coached,” Malzahn said. “John Rhys just kept telling me, `Coach, give me another chance.’ … He really gave us a spark.”

Plumlee led UCF quickly for a touchdown to make it 24-14, converting a fourth-and-10 pass along the way and capping the drive with a 17-yarder to Kobe Hudson.

“You work all year to play in a game like this,” said Plumlee, who completed 29 of 39 for 209 yards and one TD, but finished with minus-7 yards rushing as Tulane had six sacks. “I didn’t want to sell myself short or sell this team short.”

Tulane responded when both UCF safeties froze on a play-fake to Spears and Pratt found Watts running free behind the defense.

UCF cut it to 31-21 when former Virginia QB RJ Harvey took a backward pass from Plumlee and launched a 49-yard TD pass to Hudson.

And the Knights got the ball right back when Spears fumbled after a catch on the Green Wave 30. Isaiah Bowser‘s 10-yard run shortly after got UCF as close as 31-28 with 9:48 still left.

But Pratt again found a way to lead the Wave down the field, connecting with Wyatt for the longer of the receiver’s two TDs, and UCF didn’t threaten again.


UCF: Knights sophomore backup QB Mikey Keene, who had come in after Plumlee injuries for comeback victories over Cincinnati and South Florida, did not dress for the game. That allowed him to retain a year of eligibility, but also raised questions over whether he might test the transfer portal.

Tulane: It was a dream end to week that got off to a less-than-ideal start with reports out of Atlaata that head coach Willie Fritz being pursued by Georgia Tech.

“Well, I sure am glad I stayed,” Fritz said. “I made a commitment to these kids and the last thing I ever wanted to be was a distraction. So, I’m just proud to be here.”


UCF: Awaits a bowl bid on Sunday.

Tulane: Heads to its most significant bowl appearance since losing 14-13 to Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1940.

Fresno State beats Boise State 28-16 for Mountain West title

Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

BOISE, Idaho – When Fresno State’s Jake Haener was presented with his biggest challenge of the season – taking down perennial conference power Boise State – coach Jeff Tedford long knew his quarterback would be up for the challenge.

Haener, who didn’t play against Boise State when the two teams met earlier in the season due to an ankle injury, threw for 184 yards and a touchdown to lead Fresno State to a 28-16 victory over the Broncos on Saturday in the Mountain West Conference championship game.

Fresno State (9-4) overcame a 1-4 start to the season and a rash of injuries to win its final eight games, claiming the program’s third Mountain West crown.

“We’ve come a long way since the first part of the year when a lot of people didn’t believe in us,” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said. “But the staff did and the kids did. . It’s nice to see them happy.”

Boise State (9-4), which won 40-20 in the regular-season match-up between the teams, fell to 3-3 in Mountain West title games.

“We have to tip our hat to (Fresno State),” Boise State coach Andy Avalos said. “We obviously didn’t accomplish what we set out to do today, but we accomplished a lot of things this year. . And we do get one more opportunity in a bowl game.”

But it was Haener who delivered in the moments when Fresno State needed him most, which didn’t come as a surprise to Tedford.

The pair go all the way back to when Haener was 9 years old and looking for some help as a budding quarterback. A mutual friend connected him to Tedford and a long-lasting relationship was born.

“We worked together a little bit and I gave Jake a couple of goals, and he was so dedicated to those goals,” Tedford said. “I told him he had heavy feet and he needed to jump rope five hundred times without missing. Eight months later, I got a call from him, and he said, `I did it, I did it.”‘

Tedford, who recruited Haener out of high school, had to recruit him again when he entered the transfer portal after the coaching change at the end of last season and considered leaving Fresno State. But Tedford won him back.

“I wanted to be able to come back and play with this great group,” Haener said of his decision to stick it out at Fresno State for his senior season. “Once I got this guy (Tedford) on the other side of the phone, I knew I wanted to be here and play with this group. It’s been awesome and the adversity we’ve faced together has been one of the biggest challenges in my life. And it’s been awesome.”

Haener took full advantage of every miscue by the Broncos. The game’s offensive MVP was five of eight on third downs and led two key scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

“This is the golden boy of the conference and . to come up here against one of our biggest rivals in the conference, it definitely means more,” Haener said.

Boise State controlled the game early but struggled to find the end zone, clinging to a 3-0 lead late in the first half. But that all changed when Fresno State scored two touchdowns in a span of 2:36 right before halftime.

Nikko Remigio‘s electric 70-yard punt return snaking back and forth across the field sparked Fresno State. On the ensuing possession, defensive player of the game Cameron Lockridge intercepted the first of two passes, returning it 25 yards to the Broncos’ 17-yard line. Three plays later, Jordan Mims scored on a 2-yard run to put the Bulldogs up 14-3. They never relinquished the lead.

After Boise State edged within 14-9 in the third quarter, Fresno State took advantage of a roughing the punter penalty on fourth-and-15 to breathe new life into the drive. Haener finished with a 22-yard scoring strike to Zane Pope. He tacked on another scoring drive on the next possession to put the game out of reach.

Jordan Mims rushed for 83 yards and a pair of scores for Fresno State.

Boise State’s Taylen Green was 17-of-38 passing for 175 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.


Boise State: While Broncos quarterback Green made his initial splash on the team with his legs, it’s his arm that turned the season around. However, Green was often off-target against Fresno State.

Fresno State: The Bulldogs’ 10-3 campaign a year ago served as a springboard for sustained success in 2022. However, Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, who has now won two Mountain West titles, will have his work cut out for him in 2023 as his talented team is losing eight seniors on offense and five more on defense. If he chooses to utilize the transfer portal, he could shore up the team’s short-term needs and keep Fresno State in contention for another conference title.


Boise State: The Broncos await bowl-game designation.

Fresno State: The Bulldogs will face the fifth-place team from the PAC-12 in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on Dec. 17.