With all questions answered, it's now Georgia's national championship to lose

ATLANTA — The defining image from Saturday’s SEC championship wasn’t LSU players standing around while Georgia’s Chris Smith turned a blocked field goal into a Bulldogs touchdown. It wasn’t the triple-doink interception that bounced off a yellow helmet and into Georgia’s waiting arms. It wasn’t any of half a dozen Stetson Bennett-to-Brock Bowers passes, each demoralizing in their relentless precision.

The moment that summed up Saturday’s 50-30 blowout — and, in many ways, Georgia’s entire season — came just minutes before the end of the first half. Jalen Carter, Georgia’s 6-foot-3, 300-pound freight train of a defensive lineman, burst through the LSU line, wrapped up Tiger quarterback Jayden Daniels, hoisted him off the ground with one arm like a parent corralling an unruly toddler, and held the other aloft, finger up, signaling an indelible, indisputable No. 1.

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For all the trophies and accolades of the last two seasons for the Georgia Bulldogs — winners of 27 of their last 28, fleets of players sent to the NFL, a national championship — one task had eluded head coach Kirby Smart’s current squad, one goal left to be reached.

“I don't want one kid to walk out of our program without an SEC championship ring for their career,” Smart said. “That was about to happen if we didn't get that one.” Georgia’s last SEC championship came in 2017, before most of the seniors now in uniform arrived on campus.

This wasn’t necessarily a prime candidate for a letdown game, but Georgia still had to face down the complacency that comes from knowing that a conference championship isn’t a make-or-break moment for playoff hopes. LSU’s luster had dimmed to a flicker thanks to a season-crushing loss to Texas A&M last week, but as coach Brian Kelly proved against Alabama earlier this fall, the Tigers are capable of putting dents in even elite competition.

Even so, the game had the feel of a September Saturday in Athens, a game where little was at stake and the Georgia faithful were showing up with expectation rather than anxiety. Mercedes-Benz Stadium was so full of red and black it may as well have been a Georgia spring game.

The Bulldogs won Saturday in the kind of soul-crushing fashion that will keep coordinators up at night over the next few weeks trying to figure out how to handle an offense of flying butcher knives and a defense with the loving squeeze of a boa constrictor.

“Physical wins in our league. You see, our league's different. Our league's tough. Our league's hard. Week in and week out, it's extremely physical,” Smart said. “You win on the road with toughness. I thought we won [Saturday] with some toughness.”

Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) reacts as he picks up LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) during the SEC championship on Dec. 3, 2022 in Atlanta. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)
Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) reacts as he picks up LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) during the SEC championship on Dec. 3, 2022 in Atlanta. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

After the game, Smart could afford to be a little loose — he joked that he holds a Georgia quarterbacking record Bennett will never match, a 100% completion percentage, 1-for-1, and he even ladled a bit of Heisman praise on Bennett, a departure from his usual team-above-all mentality.

But being the perfectionist he is, Smart also zeroed in on some perceived deficiencies in Georgia’s game on Saturday night. The Tigers threw for 502 yards against Georgia’s defense, and even though most of the yards came long after the game was in hand, the breakdowns in coverage clearly chafed the former defensive back.

“As the year goes on, teams tackle poorly, teams cover poorly. Defense usually deteriorates. That's not the culture here. It won't be accepted or tolerated, so we got to fix it,” he said.

Smart seemed to concede that the Bulldogs may have let up on the gas a bit in the second half, up 35-10 going into the locker room. For LSU, QB Garrett Nussmeier replaced the injured Daniels in the second half, and Nussmeier threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns as LSU outscored Georgia in the half.

“We played a different style the second half. That affected us some,” he said. “Just got to play better. We got to affect the quarterback better.”

But when you’re throwing up points by the armload, defensive lapses can be understandable, if not acceptable. Georgia is the fifth team to score 50 or more points in the SEC championship; the other four — Alabama and Auburn twice apiece — all appeared in national championship games.

That’s the ultimate goal, and it now looks more likely than it has all year. Georgia now must sit and wait for the playoff committee’s final seedings, but unlike most of the other teams in the playoff mix, the Bulldogs made the committee’s job easier. The final opponent and the location are in doubt, but Georgia ought to come in at No. 1, and will remain the overwhelming favorite to win back-to-back national championships.

Anyone with any lingering questions about Georgia’s dominance can feel free to take them up with Mr. Carter.

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.