TUSCALOOSA, Ala.— Before they packed up and headed home on a flight to Athens that arrived early Sunday morning, the players on the Georgia football team could lean on recent history to know that all was not lost in the disappointment of Saturday night’s 41-24 takedown by No. 2 Alabama.
They took some solace in knowing they could see the Crimson Tide again in the SEC championship game in December.
“That’s what everybody was saying in the locker room,” quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “Our destiny is still controlled by us, which is how you want it. If we win out, we’ll probably see those guys or somebody else. We’ll be in the SEC championship if we win out. Everything we want is still ahead of us.”
The Bulldogs (3-1) remain one game ahead of Florida (2-1) in the SEC East in the win column but merely getting to Atlanta isn’t the end all and be all for Georgia.
Not in Kirby Smart’s fifth season.
Georgia was throttled by eventual national champion LSU last year 37-10 in the SEC championship and while the Bulldogs looked every bit worthy of the No. 3 ranking Saturday when it led the Crimson Tide 24-20 at the half, the offense was shutout in the second half and the Crimson Tide kept piling on points and yards in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“We’re going to be better next time, we’re going to be better next game,” safety Richard LeCounte said. “They got us this first time.”
Mac Jones threw for 417 yards, the third most ever by an opposing quarterback against the Bulldogs and the most since Jared Lorenzen had 528 for Kentucky on Oct. 21, 2000. He needed 58 attempts in that game. Jones was 24 of 32 with an average of 13.0 yards per attempt and four touchdown passes.
Alabama has scored 35 or more points in 17 straight games, the longest streak in major college football history. Georgia has hit 35 points six times in the last 20 games dating back to a 35-28 loss to the Crimson Tide in the 2018 SEC championship game.
Georgia came in with what many regarded as the best defense in college football.
The Crimson Tide still put up 564 total yards, the most allowed by Georgia since 566 in the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” game at Auburn in 2013.
“Their offensive line is extremely physical,” Smart said. “They’re big, they’re physical, they lean on you and they got a great running back. So the passing game they use is really creative. They run a lot of the same plays from different formations. They did a good job of disguising them with motion and everything.”
The Bulldogs slid to 14th in scoring defense and total defense nationally.
Running back Najee Harris rushed for 152 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries.
Georgia posted its best rushing average per carry of the season at 4.8, but only ran it 30 times for 145 yards out of 70 offensive plays, including 44 yards on six carries by freshman Kendall Milton.
“I thought that we ran the ball well,” Smart said. “We tried to keep them off balance with the passing game. I thought our offensive line really pass (protected) pretty well. I mean, you go against some rushers like they got, they held the pocket in there for Stetson but we didn’t do enough. We didn’t make enough plays.”
Bennett was 18 of 40 for 269 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. The 5-foot-11 redshirt junior had several passes batted down.
Smart said Bennett has gotten better, but can the former walk-on who seemed buried on the depth chart before Jamie Newman opted out improve enough that Georgia can keep pace with Alabama’s offense if and when they meet again in Atlanta? With Georgia off this week before a game at Kentucky and then the clash with Florida in Jacksonville, Smart doesn’t seem close to turning to Southern Cal transfer JT Daniels or D’Wan Mathis.
“When the level of competition changes you don’t change your evaluation,” Smart said. “You have to grow and get better. The experience in the game tonight will be invaluable for him throughout the rest of the run on the road. He’s a work in progress just like our team is. He’s going to grow and develop. As far as our team goes, No. 1 we turned it over. You can’t do that and beat good teams. And we didn’t convert third downs to extend drives. It’s disappointing because I thought we we’re able to run the ball.”
Alabama won going away even after a gameweek that was disrupted by coach Nick Saban being away from the football facility for two full days and missing Wednesday’s practice after testing positive for COVID-19. Saban stayed involved with his team remotely and he was cleared to coach from the sideline Saturday after a third negative test came back.
“At the end of the day he told us that we were ready, and we just have to go and make plays,” Jones said.
Alabama did. Georgia didn’t make enough on offense or defense.
It has two months to try to change that before a possible rematch.