Georgia players hoist the trophy after defeating LSU in the Southeastern Conference Championship football game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
ATLANTA — Georgia swatted away the field goal attempt, the ball spinning to a stop at its 4-yard line. The LSU players trudged off the field, thinking the play was over.
Christopher Smith knew better. He suddenly scooped it up and took off the other way, sprinting 96 yards for a touchdown that epitomized the Bulldogs program.
They were a step ahead of LSU on Saturday.
They’ve been a step ahead of everyone for two years now.
With all sorts of turmoil behind them in the rankings, Georgia headed to the College Football Playoff as the clear No. 1, dismantling the No. 11 Tigers 50-30 in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday.
Stetson Bennett’s threw a season-high four touchdown passes in another stellar postseason performance, while Smith’s heads-up play gave the Bulldogs an early spark.
“I’ve got good players around me. I’m not that bad at football, either,” Bennett said with a smile. “We’ve got a good team.”
Georgia (13-0, No. 1 CFP) also caught a big break when Smith deflected a pass that bounced off an LSU receiver’s helmet and wound up being picked off by the Bulldogs, setting up a score that contributed to a 35-10 lead by halftime.
LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels re-injured a sore right ankle late in the second quarter, giving way to Garrett Nussmeier in the second half.
The backup guiding the Tigers (9-4, No. 14 CFP) to three touchdowns, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Georgia accomplished something that not even last season’s national championship squad could could do — win its first SEC title since 2017. The Bulldogs were denied in this game a year ago by Alabama, before bouncing back to beat the Crimson Tide in the title game.
“I don’t want one kid to walk out of our program without an SEC championship ring in their careers,” coach Kirby Smart said. “That could’ve happened. They said enough is enough and got ’em one tonight.”
Georgia heads into the playoff assured of a return trip to Atlanta for a de facto semifinal home game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, just 75 miles from its Athens campus.
LSU’s outside hopes of crashing the four-team playoff field were wiped out a week ago by a stunning loss at Texas A&M, one of several upsets that will give the selection committee plenty to think about before its announcement Sunday.
Tennessee and Clemson also ruined their playoff hopes with losses late in the regular season, while No. 4 Southern California is presumably out after getting blown out by Utah in the Pac-12 title game Friday night.
Just as the SEC game was kicking off, No. 3 TCU lost to Kansas State in overtime for the Big 12 championship, further clouding a playoff picture that suddenly looks much more favorable for No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Alabama.
No matter who makes the elite field, Georgia is firmly focused on becoming the first repeat national champion since Alabama in 2011-12, having won all but one game this season by double-digit margins.
“I’ve tried not to play attention to any of it,” Smart said of all the chaos. “It didn’t matter to me. That’s so far away.”
The Bulldogs showed they are more than just a bunch of talented athletes — this is a smart, well-coached group.
When Nazir Stackhouse burst through the middle of the line to block LSU’s 32-yard field goal attempt late in the first quarter, Smith knew what to do.
“That’s a scenario we go over a lot in practice,” he said.
He looked toward the sideline to see if it was OK to grab it.
“You’re not allowed to pick it up unless you can score with it,” Smart said.
Smith took care of the rest, dashing to the end zone without a Tigers player in sight.
LSU coach Brian Kelly blamed himself and his staff for allowing the play to happen.
“Obviously, we did a poor job if coaching,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to have our guys alert in that situation. They were not alert.”
LSU quickly tied it up on Daniels’ 53-yard touchdown pass to Kayshon Boutte, only to have Bennett take control from there.
The sixth-year senior, a former walk-on who was offensive MVP of both Georgia playoff wins a year ago, struck for four TD passes in a less than 15-minute span: 3 yards to Brock Bowers, 22 yards to Ladd McConkey, 14 yards to Darnell Washington and 3 yards to Dillon Bell.
Just like that, Georgia led 35-7.
“I was in a zone,” Bennett said.
It’s been that way for two years now.
LSU: Kelly’s debut season turned a bit ugly the last two weeks, but the Tigers are on the right track. “We want to get back here next year,” Kelly said. “Get back here and win it.”
Georgia: Win or lose in the SEC title game, the Bulldogs were assured of a spot in the playoff. But Smart continues to impress with his ability to keep the team motivated. While there were some huge defensive lapses in the second half, this game was never in doubt.
GOING FOR 2
When Georgia scored its final touchdown early in the fourth quarter for a 48-23 lead, Smart surprisingly called for a 2-point conversion.
The Bulldogs converted it with a trick play, but Smart insisted that he wasn’t trying to run up the score.
“The books says you go for 2 there,” he said.
When asked about the play, Kelly stumbled over his words a bit before finally saying, “I don’t get too caught up in what other teams are doing.”
While Daniels went down for LSU, Georgia also lost a couple of players to injuries in the first half.
McConkey landed awkwardly making a catch along the sideline, inflaming a knee issue that’s been bothering him all year. Tight offensive tackle Warren McClendon sustained what appears to be a mild MCL sprain.
Neither returned after halftime.
LSU: The Tigers get their postseason assignment Sunday, with the Citrus Bowl among the possibilities.
Georgia: The only question is who the Bulldogs will meet in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve, with TCU, Ohio State and SEC rival Alabama all in the mix.
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