INGLEWOOD, Calif. – The rest of us thought Georgia traveled all the way across the country to play in the College Football Playoff Championship Game. The Bulldogs came out and treated it like one of those early-season Buy-a-Victory games.
This wasn’t Samford or Kent State, this season’s check-cashing guests between the hedges. This was No. 3 TCU, the 13-1 team that knocked off Michigan in one semifinal, the same Wolverines who thrashed the Ohio State team that nearly beat Georgia in the other. No one informed the Dawgs, who, led by a brilliant performance from quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, cruised to their second consecutive national championship by humiliating the Horned Frogs 65-7.
It wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
There is no logical explanation for what took place at Sofi Stadium on Monday night, no way to break down the beatdown. The Dawgs ended the season as they began it, with a one-sided victory over one of the best teams in the country. The 58-point margin surpassed the 49-3 season-opening rout of Oregon, a team that would go on to win 10 games. It surpassed the margin of every Georgia victory this season, including the 55-0 shutout of Vanderbilt. It surpassed the margin of every national championship game since the wire-service polls began naming No. 1s after the bowls in the 1960s.
Neither Merriam nor Webster can supply the adjectives to capture the nature of this victory. Epic isn’t big enough. Historic is accurate, in a cold, unimaginative way. Georgia became the first team to repeat as undisputed national champion since Alabama a decade ago. Perhaps the best place to start is easy. But why? How does this happen?
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
In seven seasons at his alma mater, Smart is the Nick Saban acorn that now overshadows the mighty Tuscaloosa oak. The epicenter of college football has moved east to Athens.
Then again, that question is easy compared to trying to explain the transformation of Bennett, the former walk-on and future icon, who finished his Georgia career with a performance that will be remembered for as long as Bulldogs fans bark. Bennett threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed untouched for scores from 21 and 6 yards.
“What he did tonight was truly amazing,” Smart said. “Probably had his best game of his career, in my opinion.”
Bennett had plenty of help. All-America tight end Brock Bowers caught seven passes for 152 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Ladd McConkey caught five passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Think about this: Bennett threw to them 13 times and completed 12 of them. The one incompletion, McConkey caught but landed out of bounds.
Smart described Bennett doing all the mental work that makes for good quarterbacking.
“When you have a quarterback that can do the protections and check things and know what the defense is doing, yet still beat you with your feet, you’ve got a high-level quarterback,” he said. “And people have slept on Stetson Bennett for too long. He needs an opportunity to play for a long time at the next level.”
TCU’s magical ride came to a stunning, screeching halt. The Horned Frogs defied the odds and the doubts for 14 games, coming from behind eight times, smacking down Michigan in a semifinal, all the while ignoring the pressure and heightened expectations that come with winning. You kept hearing this team was loose, that the Horned Frogs were focused on the task at hand and not the import of it. You kept hearing this team insulted by references to Butler, the mid-major that reached consecutive Final Four championship games. TCU is not a mid-major. The Big 12 is not the Horizon League.
And then came Monday night, when the Frogs made every skeptic look smart. Coach Sonny Dykes said he sensed tension in the locker room before the game.
“First play of the game for us was a false start (by All-America guard Steve Avila),” Dykes said. “We probably have had three false starts all year. Probably over a thousand plays (actually 969, but still), maybe had three false starts. First play of the game, we have a false start. Just things like that. That’s just not who we are. We’re not that kind of football team. If we make those mistakes, we’re not going to win football games.”
In six first-half possessions, Georgia scored five touchdowns and a field goal. Disarmed by the speed of the Bulldogs’ skill players, discombobulated by the speed of their plays, the Horned Frogs’ defense had no answers. On a night when Georgia needed no help, TCU turned the ball over three times in the first half.
Smart referred to a second-quarter play, Georgia leading 17-7, a third-and-10 on TCU’s 45. Bennett could see the Frogs’ defense about to blitz. He took the snap, spun to his left around linebacker Dee Winters and took off for a 12-yard gain. The Bulldogs scored five plays later.
“He saw the max blitz and he beat the max blitz and ran for a first down in one of the biggest plays of the game, which takes a phenomenal athlete,” Smart said. “He knew what was coming and he set the guy up.”
When Adonai Mitchell outbattled Josh Newton to catch a 22-yard touchdown pass with 26 seconds left in the half to put Georgia ahead 38-7, you could hear TV channels changing in 49 states. Only Smart had the solution to stop Bennett on this damp, chilly evening. He called time with 13:25 to play and the Dawgs ahead 52-7 to give Bennett a curtain call.
“The guys were, ‘What are we doing? Why don’t we have a play?’ ” Bennett said. “I was like, ‘They’re letting me walk out of here.’ ”
Bennett said he cherished “one last huddle with the guys, you know? That was special coming off and seeing Coach Smart; that was really cool. And I appreciate that.”
“First time he’s ever walked off that I was hugging him,” Smart said.
Bennett became the first quarterback in school history to surpass 4,000 passing yards in a season. He surpassed Matthew Stafford to move into fifth in career passing yards, which is especially cool because Bennett emerged from the postgame news conference and found the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterback waiting for him. They posed for a photo together.
Bennett also leaves Georgia as the leader in yards per passing attempt (9.13), which represents how he got the most out of every play. The former walk-on will leave Athens with a 29-3 record as a starter, two national championship rings and the undying allegiance of, if Dawgs fans will excuse the expression, a rabid fan base.
The blowout left questions to ponder during the second half, such as will anyone ever cover Bowers again? Where will Georgia put the statue of Bennett? And whatever happened to Max Duggan?
The quarterback whose fire and will carried TCU to the playoff threw four interceptions during the season. He threw four in the playoffs, including two in the first half Monday night. The pressure got to him – not the pressure of the moment, but the pressure of seeing his team fall behind and the pressure of the Georgia defensive front.
“They were playing well on defense,” said Duggan, who finished 14-of-22 for 152 yards and the two picks. “We were shooting ourselves in the foot. I was making bad decisions. I wasn’t executing well and not putting us in a position to score some points and move the ball.”
The Frogs didn’t have All-Big 12 running back Kendre Miller, sidelined by the knee injury he suffered against Michigan. Kendre Miller wouldn’t have made a difference. Bills linebacker Von Miller wouldn’t have made a difference.
Another go-figure from a night full of them: Dykes said the Frogs had their two best practices of the season this week. Georgia didn’t.
“I’ll be honest with you: I was a little concerned that we were tired,” Smart said. “I had apprehension about a couple of the practices we had. And Stetson’s complaining to me about not having enough free time when we were in Athens. He didn’t want to come in as early. And I thought you’ve got one chance to be legendary. I’m not going to leave any regret out there.”
Georgia left no regret. Georgia left no doubt. The Dawgs are again the best team in college football.