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Ashway: Georgia's Smart finds silver lining in loss
Denton Ashway

The end of Georgia’s undefeated season came so swiftly, so completely, that all seemed hopelessly lost.

In one single quarter in the SEC championship game, Alabama hung more points on Georgia’s vaunted defense than it had surrendered in an entire game all season. If ever a team looked shell-shocked, the Dawgs were it.

And the quarter began on such a high note. Stetson Bennett threw a high pass to tight end Darnell Washington for a Georgia touchdown. The pass culminated an eight-play, 97-yard drive that put Georgia ahead, 10-0. The Dawgs had outgained the Tide, 178-46. And held the ball for 11:32.

The Dawg fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium began to raise the roof.

It took Alabama all of 44 seconds to match that touchdown. On third-and-2, quarterback Bryce Young hit Jameson Williams on a short post. Williams’ speed was unmatched by Georgia’s secondary defenders, and he motored 67 yards, untouched, to score.

The Dawg fans immediately lowered the roof.

“We had a bust on that play specifically, where we left a guy wide open,” coach Kirby Smart lamented at his post-game press conference. “It wasn’t anything they did different; same route they ran on Auburn. But we played it a different way and didn’t play it correctly. Gave a play up there.”

And from there Georgia’s game unraveled. A pair of three-and-outs were followed by 10 more Alabama points on a pair of drives totaling 159 yards on 18 plays.

After Georgia finally responded with a touchdown drive, aided by three Alabama penalties, the Dawgs surrendered a back-breaking nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, the score coming with 26 seconds left in the half.

For good measure, Alabama opened the second half by traversing another 75 yards on five plays in under two minutes to go up, 31-17.

For the first time all season, Georgia faced adversity, and they did not face it well.

”I’m disappointed how we played,” Smart said. “Give Alabama a lot of credit. Give their defense and Bryce Young and their offensive skill players a lot of credit. They played really well, very accurate, explosive, and he’s hard to get down on the ground, which caused a lot of problems defensively. But we can’t turn the ball over and give up 60 and 70-yard passes and expect to be successful.

“For the most part this year we’ve executed well. We didn’t execute well tonight. And that had a lot to do with them. So give Alabama credit, and we’ve got a lot to work on.”

Overlooked in Smart’s effusive praise was the performance of Alabama’s offensive line. The same group that allowed seven sacks against Auburn and couldn’t pave the way for a touchdown until the final minute held its own against Georgia’s fearsome rush.

“I think you’ve got to affect their quarterback,” Smart observed. “You’ve got to get to him and finish, and he’s so good at avoiding rush that he buys time with his mobility to make plays downfield. Give him a lot of credit. He did a tremendous job.”

The game destroyed Georgia’s aura of invincibility in an amazingly humbling experience. As devastating as the loss was, as tough as it was to watch, it really didn’t cost Georgia anything.

Georgia still made the College Football Playoff for the first time in four seasons. The Orange Bowl matchup with Michigan might be the most eagerly anticipated game of the entire bowl season.

And Georgia faced an Alabama team with its back against the wall on Saturday. Alabama needed to win to make the playoff. They’d heard all week that they were the underdogs, and you know the offensive linemen had a lovely week of practice.

All the intangibles favored Alabama. In hindsight, much as the loss hurt, it might wind up being the best thing for Georgia in the long run.

“It didn’t do any damage,” Smart confirmed. “What it did is reinvigorated our energy. It recenters you, right? Their greatest thing is when they lost their game against Texas A&M. They garnered some focus and some attention. To me that’s an opportunity for a wake-up call, if anything.”

Nor did Smart believe his team would have any trouble bouncing back from this loss. 

“The noise begins now,” Smart predicted. “We’ve heard it before. But these guys are so solid. We’ve got such great leaders in there. I didn’t have to say a lot in there because the leaders spoke up and talked about what they wanted and how they wanted the next couple of weeks to go.

“I think, when you’ve got that, you’ve built the right kind of kids.”