After 41 seasons, the Dawgs’ drought is over.
Decades of heartbreaking losses and frustrating finishes have given way to Georgia's first national title since the 1980 season, courtesy of a 33-18 victory over longtime nemesis Alabama in the national title game in Indianapolis on Monday night.
This one came courtesy of a bruising, bullying defense that occasionally bent against the Tide, but never really broke. Georgia forced Alabama to attempt five field goals, blocking one of them. The lone touchdown allowed came after the Crimson Tide used a turnover to set themselves up on the 16-yard line. Even then the Bulldogs snuffed out the two-point conversion.
The win gave head coach Kirby Smart, 46, his first national championship and his first victory over his former boss, Alabama’s Nick Saban, who was seeking his eighth title and seventh in Tuscaloosa.
The victory topples one of Georgia’s biggest nemeses. The Bulldogs were on a seven-game losing streak to the Tide, including three losses in SEC title games and a crushing double-overtime defeat in the 2017 national championship game.
It served as a measure of revenge to Alabama’s 41-24 victory in the SEC title game some 37 days prior. In that one, the Crimson Tide offensive line was able to protect quarterback Bryce Young against a vaunted Georgia pass rush, which didn't record a single sack.
This was a whole different deal. Young was taken down four times and, just as important, was often forced to move out of the pocket or throw off unsteady feet. The Heisman Trophy-winning QB finished 35-of-57 for 369 yards. A first-half knee injury to top receiver Jameson Williams didn't help things.
For Bulldog defenders such as Channing Tindall, Nolan Smith and Jordan Davis, this was redemption.
It was won with quarterback Stetson Bennett, an undersized, former walk-on, from little Blackshear, Georgia, in the southern part of the state. Despite few expecting him to ever see the field, he was determined to play for the Bulldogs and over the years simply outperformed or outlasted the competition.
Often doubted and occasionally derided, he delivered one of the biggest plays of the game when he uncorked a 40-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell, giving Georgia a 19-18 lead. He withstood relentless hounding throughout by the violent Alabama pass rush to finish with 224 yards passing. Late in the fourth he lobbed a pass to Brock Bowers, who rumbled for 15 yards for a touchdown that salted the game away.
Simply put, he was good enough.
And that was all Georgia was trying to be, just a little bit better than Bama. After decades of fielding often good to very good teams that never could get over the hump, in 2016, the school pulled Smart off Saban’s staff and told him to build a Tuscaloosa replica in Athens.
With a laser focus on recruiting and development, Smart did, giving him enough talent to go toe-to-toe, chin-to-chin, blow-for-blow with the Tide.
This was an old-school affair, a rough-and-ready rock fight where field position and punts were used as weapons. Yards gained were rare; explosive plays uncommon. The game spun on blocked field goals, strip sacks and stuffed two-point conversions before Kelee Ringo intercepted Young and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown with 54 seconds remaining. The score put the Dawgs up 33-18 and set Georgia on its way to the championship.