Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Orange Bowl 2021: Georgia gets back to its dominant ways, flushing Alabama loss ahead of rematch with Tide

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – That sound you heard Friday from Hard Rock Stadium was Georgia flushing its memories from the latest Alabama debacle … and Michigan circling the drain. For one night, there was nothing wrong with the Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff that the Dawgs couldn’t fix themselves.

Congratulations, Georgia. Now comes the hard part.

The No. 3 Dawgs’ 34-11 decision over the No. 2 Wolverines was so complete almost every lingering question regarding the regular season’s most dominant team was answered in a first-half evisceration of the Big Ten champions.

Almost.

There is, once again, a Crimson and White query looming on the horizon after Georgia advanced to its second CFP National Championship in five seasons.

Will the Dawgs finally slay the T-Town beasts to win their first national championship in 41 years?

That remains to be determined, but as soon as Michigan was swept out of the CFP, the stage was set for yet another all-SEC tussle. For the third time in the last seven years, we have a rematch in the CFP National Championship. All of them have involved Alabama.

If you’re looking for a little variety in your playoff, well, that will have to wait. By the time the title game rolls around on Jan. 10, 2022, the teams will have played twice in slightly more than five weeks.

Yes, the SEC is hogging the spotlight again. No. 1 Alabama disposed of No. 4 Cincinnati 27-6 in the Cotton Bowl semifinal to chase its eighth title in 15 years under coach Nick Saban.

Meet the new Dawgs, same as the old Dawgs? It sure looked like it Friday night. Quarterback Stetson Bennett IV stiff-armed both Michigan and the JT Daniels fan club, mad bombing the Wolverines all the way back to Ann Arbor, Michigan. The one-time walk-on completed his first nine passes, eventually throwing for 307 yards and three touchdowns.

But it was the way he completed them with tosses of 35, 39, 53 and 57 yards against a defense that dared think it had enough to muscle in on the Dawgs’ territory. Instead, Georgia flexed, and as usually happened this season, the opponent recoiled.

The nation’s best defense, pushed around so much by Bama 27 days ago in the SEC Championship Game, more than regained its form. Michigan QB Cade McNamara was intercepted twice by Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick and sacked four times. The Wolverines were held to a season-low 88 yards rushing.  For the eighth time this season, Georgia allowed seven points or less.  

“That’s all our kids have been hearing for three weeks,” Kirby Smart said.

The Georgia coach was referring to criticism that the Dawgs can’t win the big one — at least a big one involving the Crimson Tide.

On Friday, Michigan entered the Orange Bowl having already scaled its personal summit in beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten. The Wolverines started this season 100-1 to win the national title. They entered Friday at 8-1. The house money they were playing with at Hard Rock ran out.

For Georgia, it is still at base camp. The result wasn’t so much a semifinal as a prelim for another main event.

“There’s definitely one more game. Champs? Not at all. Job not finished. We didn’t do everything we did this whole season just to win the Orange Bowl,” said star linebacker Nakobe Dean, who had seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble on Friday night. “Job not finished.”

Alabama has won a record eight in a row in the Georgia series that dates back in 1985. The Dawgs haven’t beaten the Tide since Saban’s first season in 2007. Smart remains 0-4 against his old boss with one of those losses an overtime defeat in the 2018 CFP National Championship.

Blah, blah, blah. Here we go again.

Except Georgia must certainly feel it is better positioned this around. It goes to Indianapolis as a 2.5-point favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook, with a defense that is generational and a quarterback who is in his prime five years after arriving as a walk-on and redshirting in 2017. That season marked was the first time Georgia played in a CFP title game.

“Every day from then until now, you just go about your business and put your best foot forward,” said Bennett, who transferred to junior college and back to get to this moment. “You hope things work out.”

Stetson was a bystander during that season’s run to the championship game. Now, he is the center of Georgia’s offense. Someone had to throw all those passes to freshman All-American tight end Brock Bowers this season.

It should have been a sign on Georgia’s first possession that Michigan simply forgot to cover Bowers, who could have walked in from the 9-yard line for his team’s first score.

In a decision that flipped the game early, Harbaugh decided to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the Georgia 41 in the first quarter. Michigan already trailed 7-0. The gamble didn’t pay off when McNamara missed on a short pass that would have picked up the first down to tight end Erick All.

Georgia promptly took six plays to cover the 59 yards. Just 4 minutes into the game, 14-0 Georgia looked like 50-0.

The Michigan that had steamrolled Ohio State and Iowa could not get a running game going. Freshman QB J.J. McCarthy was left to tune up for next season in the second half.

Any conversation about Daniels rescuing the lost Dawgs stopped about the time Bennett completed those first nine passes. It was actually 10 in a row as a team counting running back Kenny McIntosh’s touchdown toss to Adonai Mitchell, the first by a Georgia running back in 15 years.

By the time Georgia led 20-3 in the second quarter, nine Bulldogs had caught his passes. They became the first team in CFP history to score on their first five possessions.

The words of offensive coordinator Todd Monken from this week were likely ringing in the ears of Dawgs fans.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we can win the national championship, and … there’s no doubt in my mind we can win it with Stetson Bennett. There’s no question,” Monken said.

Georgia might have flushed the remaining questions it faced, and the self-doubt its fought, on New Year’s Eve.

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