Georgia assumes SEC mantle vacated by Alabama, reaffirming dominance by thrashing Tennessee

ATHENS, Georgia — What the game of the year lacked in gripping drama, it made up for in closure. It’s becoming clear what’s really a stake with the reigning national champions and their leader. No. 3 Georgia 27, No. 1 Tennessee 13 was a 3 ½-hour reflection of Kirby Smart’s reason why.

Georgia’s boss didn’t come back home seven years ago just to be a head coach. It wasn’t just to pummel opponents with his withering defensive schemes. He didn’t want to just resurrect his alma mater. He wanted to build Alabama-by-the-Oconee.

The Oconee River runs through the middle of Athens. Alabama is the program by which Bulldogs everywhere — whether they admit it or not — want to measure themselves.   

Smart and his Dawgs on Saturday took another huge step closer to sharing Nick Saban’s shadow with a physical pounding of the Volunteers that felt more like 44-13. Sure, Georgia got over a sizeable obstacle in January in beating Alabama to win the national championship for the first time since 1980.

The Dawgs already beaten the Crimson Tide. Now, can they become the Tide? 

Something significant is changing. No. 6 Alabama was upset 32-31 at No. 10 LSU in overtime. Its second loss at this point in the season is its earliest since Nick Saban’s first campaign in 2007.

The season began with everyone looking up at Alabama, literally and figuratively. Georgia (9-0) will now retain and (AP Top 25, Coaches Poll) and grab (College Football Playoff Rankings) a chokehold on every No. 1 ranking available with four weeks left until Selection Sunday.

The Dawgs are doing it despite the loss a record 15 NFL Draft choices — five of them in the first round. They are doing it with 22 true freshmen contributing. They did it Saturday without their best defender, injured linebacker Nolan Smith, and the flu running through the defensive line room.

They are doing it with a walk-on quarterback, Stetson Bennett IV, in his sixth year slinging outrageous darts that — judging by Saturday — have to edge him further into the Heisman Trophy picture.

“When those players left, we were excited and we were congratulating [those] players,” Georgia defensive linemen Nazir Stackhouse said. “But in the back of our mind, we knew a lot of us had to step up. We knew that burning had to come up on us. We knew that the narrative was, ‘Oh, Georgia wasn’t what they were before because they lost all those draft picks.'”

It was way more Dawg Nation damnation Saturday than a Rocky Flop. It was more Georgia reign than the annoying second-half rain. The Dawgs were too good — for the Vols, probably for the SEC, and perhaps for the entire country. More to the point, whether Smart will admit it, this looks like the beginning of what Saban built 270 miles down the road in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

That is a dynasty that competes for championships every year. It might be too early to make such assertions at Georgia, but it sure looks to be headed in that direction. It is the reigning national champion that could be better than last season.

That’s less of a discussion point than the bigger picture. Saturday might have been the defining answer to that narrative. We are (possibly) witnessing history because no team has ever lost 15 draft picks — a recipe for a rebuild. Smart won’t hear of it because. at times, he couldn’t hear, period, in what have been the loudest game in Sanford Stadium history.

“What’s more deafening than deafening?” Smart said.

But about that supposed rebuild, Kirby. How is this happening?

“Recruit hard, play with physical toughness,” Smart said flatly. “Everybody in the SEC recruits well. You’ve got to go sign good football players. We’ve done that. From what I hear from other people that watch us, it’s physical toughness. It’s Tuesday and Wednesday practice. Physical toughness won out for us today.”

Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker was sacked as many times as his offense was flagged for false starts in the madness between the hedges — six each. Quick-strike wide receiver Jalin Hiatt was met with a challenge from Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo, who told Smart, “I want No. 11.”

“It’s not the game plan,” Georgia’s coach said. “We’re going to do it the way we think best.”

The Tennessee dismantling was surgical. Hiatt caught only six balls, averaging less than 11 yards per catch. Tennessee as a team had 62 yards after catch, 2.7 yards per reception. And Ringo got his way, sort of. He picked off Hooker’s ill-timed 39-yard shot to the end zone to WR Cedric Tillman.

The turnover resulted in a grinding 12-play, 78-yard drive for a field goal that made it 24-6 at halftime. There was little doubt of the result. Since 2004, Georgia is 117-1 at home in games in which it leads by 18 points.

Given all that, if Georgia defends its national championship, it might as well go down as a repeat defender.

It was Bennett taking shots down the field instead of Hooker. Any chance the Vols had of sneaking into the CFP as an at-large team dimmed to a bigger reality. The SEC’s best chance of getting two teams in now may be Georgia losing. Everyone else in the conference has at least one loss.

“Experience is very helpful,” Bennett said. “It’s the unknown of big games. You don’t know what kind of freaks you out, but something does. Now, we have played in [big games]. The freshmen who haven’t [had] the old guys show them how to do it.”

Take your pick on the tutorials Tennessee missed on what it takes to win it all.

Vols middle linebacker Juwan Mitchell was outrun by Bennett on a 13-yard touchdown to open the scoring. Not saying a middle linebacker should be able to track down Bennett, but an SEC middle linebacker should be able to track down Bennett.

The Tennessee safeties needed some safety training. Senior Trevon Flowers was smoked by Arian Smith for 52 yards on the first play of Georgia’s second series. Backup safety Doneiko Slaughter lost Ladd McConkey on a 37-yard touchdown strike.

Perhaps Tennessee’s best secondary defender, senior S Jaylen McCullough, lost Kenny McIntosh for a 49-yard gain that set up Georgia’s third touchdown.

At the end of the first quarter, Georgia was on pace to gain 800 yards.

“I hate the way this one turned out, for sure,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Everybody hurts inside of that locker room.”

All of it is starting to look a lot like what Saban has done over the years.

That is coaching the only repeat national champions (2011-12) since Nebraska did it in 1994-95. That is getting to the national championship last season in what was supposed to be a gap year after losing 10 draft choices — six in the first round — and breaking in a new quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy (Bryce Young).

That is winning it all in 2020 a year after losing nine draftees, five in the first round. That is, winning a national championship in 2017 after losing 10 draft choices, four in the first round.

Yes, Smart, 46, is six national championships behind Saban. He’s also got time — 25 years on his former boss.

Meet the new loss, same as the old loss. Georgia won for the sixth straight year in this series and for the 11th time in the last 13 meetings overall.

“Getting to Atlanta is a whole lot tougher now,” Heupel said.

It’s darn impossible for the Vols to get to the SEC Championship Game. A team leading the country in offense scored one touchdown (of the garbage variety) with 4:15 left. Georgia would have to lose twice while Tennessee wins out for Vols to get back in the SEC East picture.

It says something about the dominant nature of the win that the Dawgs are that far ahead.

“Week-by-week, day-by-day. That’s how anything gets done,” Bennett said. “That’s why we’re here right now.”

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