Smart not celebrating UGA win, ‘focused’ on Tide

  • Senior college football writer
  • Author of seven books on college football
  • Graduate of the University of Georgia

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — After guiding his team to a 34-11 victory against No. 2 Michigan in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl on Friday night, Georgia coach Kirby Smart wasn’t interested in getting a celebratory Gatorade shower from his players.

“I’m not interested in celebrating that,” Smart said. “We’ll look back on that win and that’ll be great, but we’re focused on the task ahead, and that’s the objective. They worked their tail off for three to four weeks to get this opportunity, and it was a one-game season, and now it’s another one-game season.”

The task ahead is a monumental one: The victory gives No. 3 Georgia another chance to beat No. 1 Alabama and end a 41-year drought without a national championship.

Less than a month after the Bulldogs fell for the first time this season, to the Crimson Tide 41-24 in the SEC championship game, they secured a rematch by dismantling the Wolverines at Hard Rock Stadium.

Georgia will play Alabama in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T on Jan. 10 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) in Indianapolis. The Bulldogs will try to end a seven-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide.

“I really never had questions about this team,” Smart said. “The resiliency, the bounce back, the amount of character — I’ve seen it all year. We didn’t play well, and we turned the ball over and didn’t get any turnovers and played poor in the red area. You can list all the things we did in the last game. That’s all our kids have heard about for three weeks.”

Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean echoed his coach’s sentiments when asked about Queen’s iconic song “We Are the Champions” being played during the trophy presentation.

“Champs not at all. The job’s not finished,” Dean said. “We didn’t do everything we did this whole season just to win the Orange Bowl.”

Smart will try to beat his mentor, Nick Saban, for the first time after losing four in a row. The Bulldogs had a lead in each of those defeats, including double-digit leads in three of them. Saban is 25-1 against his former assistants, losing to Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher for the first time this season.

It’s the second time Alabama and Georgia will play in a CFP National Championship; the Tide won 26-23 in overtime in Atlanta at the end of the 2017 season.

Georgia will try to win its first national championship since 1980. Alabama will attempt to win its seventh under Saban since 2009 and back-to-back titles for the second time in his tenure (2011-12). Saban’s teams are 9-2 against the Bulldogs while coaching at LSU and Alabama.

It was quite a bounce-back performance for the Bulldogs, who looked overmatched in their ugly loss to the Tide on Dec. 4. They overwhelmed Michigan, which was playing in the CFP for the first time and enjoying a renaissance under coach Jim Harbaugh. Georgia scored on each of its first five possessions and never punted (the clock ran out on its final drive) in building a 27-3 lead at the half. The Bulldogs are the first team to score on their first five possessions of a CFP game.

Georgia put the finishing touches on the Wolverines when quarterback Stetson Bennett lofted a 39-yard touchdown pass to running back James Cook down the left sideline with 11:11 to go for a 31-point lead. Bennett, who was clobbered in the back by Michigan linebacker Michael Barnett just after he threw, raised his arms after Cook slipped behind two defenders for the score.

Bennett, a former walk-on, played one of the best games of his college career, completing 20 of 30 passes for 313 yards with three touchdowns. It was a much better performance than he had against Alabama the last time.

“I didn’t go out there and play well today in spite of people,” Bennett said. “I came out there and played well and worked hard throughout the few weeks we had off because my teammates needed me to do that, and we needed that to win.”

The Bulldogs took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in seven plays for a touchdown, with Bennett throwing a 9-yard touchdown to freshman Brock Bowers for a 7-0 lead. It was Bowers’ 12th scoring reception, which set a Georgia single-season record.

Meanwhile, Michigan, which had scored 143 points in its previous three games, couldn’t muster much of anything against a Georgia defense that was surprisingly vulnerable against the Crimson Tide in its last game. The Wolverines turned the ball over three times, surrendered four sacks and went 1-for-3 in the red zone.

The Wolverines were stopped on fourth down at the Georgia 41 on their opening possession. Michigan’s offense had just one play longer than 20 yards in the first half — a 42-yard pass to Roman Wilson to the Georgia 19. But then the Bulldogs sacked Cade McNamara for an 8-yard loss on the next play, and Michigan had to settle for Jake Moody’s 36-yard field goal.

With Georgia throwing myriad screen passes, it didn’t allow a sack and held All-American Aidan Hutchinson to four tackles and only one tackle for loss. All-Big Ten linebacker David Ojabo didn’t have a tackle. Conversely, McNamara was pressured on nine of his first 24 dropbacks and could never get comfortable in the pocket.

Any hopes of a Michigan comeback in the second half were over after it turned the ball over on each of its opening possessions. Georgia’s Derion Kendrick intercepted McNamara’s pass in the end zone, and then Devonte Wyatt recovered Blake Corum’s fumble at the Georgia 47.

It was a disappointing end for the Wolverines, who won their first Big Ten title in 17 years to reach the CFP. They had won their previous five games, including a 42-27 rout of rival Ohio State and a 42-3 defeat of Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. Everything that had worked the past two months was no match for Georgia’s speed, however.

“It was a great season,” Harbaugh said. “To me, it’s one of the best seasons in Michigan football history. We were trying to make it greater. We were trying to make it greater tonight. But it was still a great season.”

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