No. 1 Georgia romps into playoff with 50-30 SEC win vs LSU

Joshua L. Jones / USA TODAY NETWORK
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ATLANTA – Georgia swatted away the field goal attempt, the ball spinning to a stop at its 4-yard line. The LSU players trudged off the field, thinking the play was over.

Christopher Smith knew better. He suddenly scooped it up and took off the other way, sprinting 96 yards for a touchdown that epitomized the Bulldogs program.

They were a step ahead of LSU on Saturday.

They’ve been a step ahead of everyone for two years now.

With all sorts of turmoil behind them in the rankings, Georgia headed to the College Football Playoff as the clear No. 1, dismantling the No. 11 Tigers 50-30 in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday.

Stetson Bennett‘s threw a season-high four touchdown passes in another stellar postseason performance, while Smith’s heads-up play gave the Bulldogs an early spark.

“I’ve got good players around me. I’m not that bad at football, either,” Bennett said with a smile. “We’ve got a good team.”

Georgia (13-0, No. 1 CFP) also caught a big break when Smith deflected a pass that bounced off an LSU receiver’s helmet and wound up being picked off by the Bulldogs, setting up a score that contributed to a 35-10 lead by halftime.

LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels re-injured a sore right ankle late in the second quarter, giving way to Garrett Nussmeier in the second half.

The backup guiding the Tigers (9-4, No. 14 CFP) to three second-half touchdowns, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

Georgia accomplished something that not even last season’s national championship squad could could do – win its first SEC title since 2017. The Bulldogs were denied in this game a year ago by Alabama, before bouncing back to beat the Crimson Tide in the title game.

“I don’t want one kid to walk out of our program without an SEC championship ring in their careers,” coach Kirby Smart said. “That could’ve happened. They said enough is enough and got ’em one tonight.”

Georgia heads into the playoff assured of a return trip to Atlanta for a de facto semifinal home game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, just 75 miles from its Athens campus.

LSU’s outside hopes of crashing the four-team playoff field were wiped out a week ago by a stunning loss at Texas A&M, one of several upsets that will give the selection committee plenty to think about before its announcement Sunday.

Tennessee and Clemson also ruined their playoff hopes with losses late in the regular season, while No. 4 Southern California is presumably out after getting blown out by Utah in the Pac-12 title game Friday night.

Just as the SEC game was kicking off, No. 3 TCU lost to Kansas State in overtime for the Big 12 championship, further clouding a playoff picture that suddenly looks much more favorable for No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Alabama.

No matter who makes the elite field, Georgia is firmly focused on becoming the first repeat national title since Alabama in 2011-12, having won all but one game this season by double-digit margins.

“I’ve tried not to play attention to any of it,” Smart said of all the chaos. “It didn’t matter to me. That’s so far away.”

The Bulldogs showed they are more than just a bunch of talented athletes – this is a smart, well-coached group.

When Nazir Stackhouse burst through the middle of the line to block LSU’s 32-yard field goal attempt late in the first quarter, Smith knew what to do.

“That’s a scenario we go over a lot in practice,” he said.

He looked toward the sideline to see if it was OK to grab it.

“You’re not allowed to pick it up unless you can score with it,” Smart said.

Smith took care of the rest.

LSU coach Brian Kelly blamed himself and his staff for allowing the play to happen.

“Obviously, we did a poor job if coaching,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to have our guys alert in that situation. They were not alert.”

LSU quickly tied it up on Daniels’ 53-yard touchdown pass to Kayshon Boutte, only to have Bennett take control from there.

The sixth-year senior, a former walk-on who was offensive MVP of both Georgia playoffs wins a year ago, struck for four TD passes in a less than 15-minute span: 3 yards to Brock Bowers, 22 yards to Ladd McConkey, 14 yards to Darnell Washington and 3 yards to Dillon Bell.

Just like that, Georgia led 35-7.

“I was in a zone,” Bennett said.

It’s been that way for two years now.

THE TAKEAWAY

LSU: Kelly’s debut season turned a bit ugly the last two weeks, but the Tigers are on the right track. “We want to get back here next year. That’s our goal,” Kelly said. “Get back here and win it.”

Georgia: Win or lose in the SEC title game, the Bulldogs were assured of a spot in the playoff. But Smart continues to impress with his ability to keep the team motivated. While there were some huge defensive lapses in the second half, this game was never in doubt.

GOING FOR 2

When Georgia scored its final touchdown early in the fourth quarter for a 48-23 lead, Smart surprisingly called for a 2-point conversion.

The Bulldogs converted it with a trick play, but Smart insisted that he wasn’t trying to run up the score.

“The books says you go for 2 there,” he said.

When asked about the play, Kelly stumbled over his words a bit before finally saying, “I don’t get too caught up in what other teams are doing.”

INJURY REPORT

While Daniels went down for LSU, Georgia also lost a couple of players to injuries in the first half.

McConkey landed awkwardly making a catch along the sideline, inflaming a knee issue that’s been bothering him all year. Tight offensive tackle Warren McClendon sustained what appears to be a mild MCL sprain.

Neither returned after halftime.

UP NEXT

LSU: The Tigers get their postseason assignment Sunday, with the Citrus Bowl among the possibilities.

Georgia: The only question is who the Bulldogs will meet in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve, with TCU, Ohio State and SEC rival Alabama all in the mix.

No. 1 Georgia motivated to end SEC championship game drought

Joshua L. Jones/USA TODAY NETWORK
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ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia’s recent frustrations in the Southeastern Conference championship game are providing extra motivation for the Bulldogs to remain focused this week.

The matchup against No. 11 LSU in Atlanta will be No. 1 Georgia’s fifth SEC championship game in the last six seasons under coach Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs’ only SEC title in that span came in 2017, when they beat Auburn 28-7.

Georgia is the defending national champion, but most players are still looking for their first conference championship.

The players say that’s more than enough reason to avoid the temptation to look ahead to the four-team College Football Playoff.

“It definitely means a lot to me,” senior safety Chris Smith said. “It’s definitely one of our team goals to be able to win the SEC. I’ve played in this game three times and haven’t been able to win. Hopefully the fourth time is the charm.”

Georgia (12-0, No. 1 CFP) completed back-to-back undefeated regular seasons for the first time in school history with last week’s 37-14 win over Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs sit atop the AP Top 25 for the eighth straight week.

Georgia strengthened its case to be considered the successor to Alabama as the nation’s most powerful program. Ending the streak of three consecutive SEC championship game losses would boost those bragging rights.

The Bulldogs’ recent record of futility in the SEC championship game includes a 37-10 loss to LSU in 2019.

“They gave us a beatdown and left a bitter taste in our mouth,” Smith said. “I was here for that and that definitely gives me extra motivation for this game as well.”

A win over LSU would leave no doubt about Georgia’s position atop the playoff rankings. The Bulldogs could make the four-team playoff field even with a loss this week, but Smart says the first priority is winning the conference. He says there’s no reason to think his players could be tempted to look ahead to the playoff.

“No, we’re worried about winning the SEC championship,” Smart said. “That’s the most important thing on our agenda, is to have an opportunity to do something that rarely gets done. I mean, it’s tough to win an SEC championship. I’ve been part of this league for a long time. I have almost as many national championships as I do SEC championships. They’re really hard to come by. We’re focused on LSU.”

LSU coach Brian Kelly said he thinks the SEC championship game will remain important even after the playoff expands to 12 teams.

“I think the conference championships still carry such a high regard in college football and how they’re perceived,” Kelly said. “I think in particular the SEC championship game, I think of that as such a big game and celebrated, that I think that’s always going to carry its place in college football.”

Georgia lost to Alabama 41-24 in last year’s SEC championship game before beating the Crimson Tide to end a 41-year national title drought. Alabama also beat Georgia 35-28 in the 2018 SEC title game.

The SEC championship game losses are an obvious void on the Bulldogs’ otherwise impressive seven-year run with Smart.

Smart is 1-1 in national championship games and 1-3 in SEC championship games at Georgia.

“It’s more about checking a box,” Smart said before looking at a wall in the team’s meeting room which lists every year Georgia won a conference title.

“It’s about that next step and having an opportunity to put a number on the wall that stays there forever. It’s an SEC championship. You don’t belittle those. Those are hard to come by. They’re what you do what you do for. … I think our players take a lot of pride in that.”

LSU, USC move up behind UGA, Ohio State, Michigan, TCU in CFP

LSU v Arkansas
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LSU moved up to fifth and Southern California was sixth Tuesday night in the College Football Playoff rankings behind Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU.

The top four remained the same for the third straight week, but the chasing teams changed order after Tennessee lost to South Carolina last Saturday night.

Selection committee chairman Boo Corrigan, who is also the athletic director at North Carolina State, said there was a lot of discussion about LSU (9-2) and USC (10-1) this week.

“The committee at the end of the day, saw the wins over Alabama, Mississippi (for LSU) as stronger than the wins over UCLA and Oregon State (for USC),” Corrigan said. “The one area we still have questions on is the strength of the defense of USC and looking at it in its entirety, we believe that LSU deserves to be ranked five and SC six.”

Two games this weekend could create more clarity.

Michigan (11-0) is at Ohio State (11-0) on Saturday and USC hosts Notre Dame (8-3), which checked in at 15th in the selection committee’s rankings.

There are two more rankings left. The final ones on Dec. 4 set the field for the College Football Playoff. The semifinals will be played Dec. 31 in the Peach and Fiesta bowls. The national championship game will be played at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

Alabama was seventh, though the Crimson Tide don’t seem to have a realistic route to make the College Football Playoff for the eight time in nine years. LSU and Georgia are already locked into the Southeastern Conference title game.

Clemson came in eighth, Oregon was ninth and Tennessee fell to 10th.

ANALYSIS

Georgia (11-0), the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game, TCU (11-0) and LSU will head into the final two weeks of the race in the best shape to earn a spot in the final four.

That’s probably overstating LSU’s position because the Tigers would have to beat the defending national champion Bulldogs to become the first team to make the CFP with two losses.

But they have a shot and that’s all you can ask for at this point in the season.

USC fans might not like seeing the Trojans behind an SEC team with two losses, but they shouldn’t fret too much.

If Georgia takes care of business against LSU, that opens up a spot for USC – if the Trojans can win out. That will be difficult against Notre Dame and either Oregon, Utah or Washington in the Pac-12 title game.

As for the Ohio State-Michigan loser, how the game plays out will go a long way toward determining if that team can take a back door into the final four. It’s also going to need some losses sprinkled around among TCU, USC and LSU.

The Buckeyes are probably better positioned to get in with a loss in the rivalry game because that opening-night win against Notre Dame is looking pretty good these days and would only go up in value of the Irish beat USC.

Michigan’s terrible nonconference schedule (Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn) is continually cited as a mark against the Wolverines.

Then there is Clemson (10-1).

Even if the Tigers finish as 12-1 Atlantic Coast Conference champions, they’re going to need some help in the form of losses by at least two of USC, LSU and TCU.

Getting drilled by Notre Dame could be tough to overcome for Clemson if both Ohio State and USC have wins against the Irish on their resumes.