Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Georgia’s national championship angst goes up in smoke as Kirby Smart, Stetson Bennett cement legacies

INDIANAPOLIS — To make it official, Stetson Bennett IV cried. The Georgia quarterback’s tears had plenty of company from Dawg Nation, which has been running with emotions for 41 years. After all that time, it was never going to be easy. But on a bitterly cold Monday night — at least outside Lucas Oil Stadium — the wait was certainly worth it.

To make it a party, Kirby Smart seemed to almost give permission to the trespassers who made it onto the field after Georgia’s biggest win since the start of the Reagan Administration.

“There’s going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight,” Georgia’s sixth-year coach said.

The damage had already been done in the No. 3 Bulldogs’ 33-18 win over No. 1 Alabama that at least dented a dynasty but certainly unleashed a celebration for the ages.

The program of Herschel and Dooley is now linked historically to the legend of Stetson and Kirby.

The quarterback from Blackshear, Georgia, rose from walk-on to hero with a go-ahead 40-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell with 8:09 to play. Smart fulfilled a destiny that started with him turning down several job offers while at Alabama until his alma mater came calling in 2016.

A lot of heartbreak had to be endured. Smart broke an 0-4 record against his mentor, Nick Saban. he became the second Saban assistant (both this season) to beat the legend. Whether that indicates any kind of weakness for Saban, 70, is a discussion for another time.

On Monday, all it took for Georgia to lift itself out of the championship dark ages was a rally for the ages.

The Dawgs trailed 18-13 with 10:14 left, then proceeded to score 20 unanswered points. The last came on a pick six by Kelee Ringo, setting off a celebration all the way from Indianapolis to Athens.

Dawg Nation couldn’t contain itself to the point several fans came out of the stands to celebrate with their beloved heroes. Trevor Houghton, who claimed to be a Georgia senior from Houston, was one of them.

With arms handcuffed behind his back, Houghton was asked if it was worth it.

“100% it was worth it,” he said. “Go Dawgs!”

Cue the tears, then. Bennett welled up to the point he didn’t even watch the completion of the pick six. He had not only just outplayed a Heisman Trophy winner in Bryce Young, he saw his dreams become reality by winning a national championship.

Well, with a little help. Young was intercepted twice and sacked three times. By the end of the game, injuries made Alabama a shadow of itself.

But let’s not make excuses. Georgia rolled to a school-record 14 wins, the only blemish coming 37 days earlier to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. By Monday night, that result seemed like 37 years ago.

“The tears after the game, that just hit me,” said Bennett, who ended the season with 12 touchdown passes in his last four games. ‘When you put as much time into it as we do — blood, sweat and tears — it just means something.”

Cleansed were the tortured souls of Dawgs everywhere who always seemed to know something was going to go wrong.

Alabama had been an underdog only twice in its last 95 games. It won those games, both against Georgia, by an average of 22.5 points.

History says it’s hard to sweep a team in rematches like these. Alabama failed. Georgia denied Saban his seventh national championship at Bama as he sought to go back-to-back for the second time (2011-12).

Smart got his first.

“How about this university? How about these guys?” Smart said immediately following the game. “There were people that said we weren’t conditioned enough, and it pissed a lot of people off on our sideline.”

Alabama ran the Georgia defense off the field in the previous meeting in the SEC Championship Game last month. Alabama tried to do the same Monday, running tempo and quick three-step drops by Young. Bama ran 85 plays but found less room this time. Young ended up throwing to an inexperienced group of young receivers with little play-making ability. 

The program of Herschel and Dooley and frustration spanning four decades finally got over the hump, physically and mentally. Young was pummeled. With his receiving corps diminished and the running game bottled up, he had to throw a career-high 57 times.

For Georgia, this makes up for everything. And by everything, we mean Pittsburgh’s Dan Marino throwing the game-winning pass with 35 seconds left in the 1982 Sugar Bowl. We mean, one year later in the same bowl, Penn State’s Todd Blackledge throwing a fourth-quarter 47-yard bomb for insurance in a 27-23 win over the Dawgs. Herschel Walker left the field that night as the Heisman Trophy winner but not with a second national title.

We mean Georgia going another two decades from that moment without winning the SEC. In 2007, No. 7 LSU leap-frogged No. 4 Georgia to get to the BCS Championship Game. Oh, and who can forget the soul-crunching loss four years ago in the CFP National Championship when Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith with a game-winning TD pass in overtime.

It looked like Georgia’s fortunes would sink again with 12 minutes left. It was ruled Bennett had fumbled as the ball left his hands on a sack by linebacker Christian Harris. Defensive back Brian Branch controlled the ball inbounds, allowing Alabama a short field to go up 18-13 after a failed two-point conversion.

“It’s something you can’t control really,” Georgia running back James Cook said. “We just kept chopping.”

The Tide did not score again as Bennett threw two touchdown passes preceding the game-icing pick six. After all the crying and all the trying, Georgia is national champion.

“I’m so happy for the Georgia people,” Smart said. “I told the guys in the locker room, ‘Take a picture of this.’ … As they say, they become legendary. It’s not just for me; it’s for all these guys.”

We finally found Alabama’s weakness. It doesn’t have an endless supply of talent.

John Mechie III, Young’s second-favorite target, was out for the game with a torn ACL suffered against Georgia in the SEC title game. In the second quarter on Monday, All-American wide receiver Jameson Williams went down with a left knee injury after catching a 40-yard pass. He did not return. The secondary was already nicked up with various ailments. Then star defensive end Phidarian Mathis went out late clutching the right side of his chest.

This was, at least in some ways, supposed to be a transition year for Alabama. It lost six first-round draft choices from the 2020 championship team, including its three most potent offensive players.

Instead, the real transition may have come for a Georgia team that finally got itself over the hump.

A local Alabama website ran a story the morning of the national title game alerting readers, “Here’s where to get your Alabama CFP national championship T-shirts Monday night.”

So much for not providing Georgia extra motivation.

Cigars were optional for players who wanted to partake, but all those years of the Dawgs’ suffering were up in smoke. 

Georgia Bulldogs championship gear released

The Dawgs have won their first national championship in 41 years! You can now buy Georgia championship shirts, hats, hoodies and much more to celebrate the historic win. Get gear here now!

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