No. 1 Georgia primed and ready for another crack at Bama

November 27, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia's running back Kenny McIntosh (6) celebrates with Georgia's quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) after scoring a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 27, 2021. Georgia won 45-0 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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November 27, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia's running back Kenny McIntosh (6) celebrates with Georgia's quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) after scoring a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 27, 2021. Georgia won 45-0 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

ATHENS – The SEC Championship matchup between No. 1 Georgia and No. 3 Alabama is set. It has been for a while, but the dynamic feels just a tad bit different after the Crimson Tide’s struggle against Auburn on Saturday night.

Alabama won, as expected, but it took four overtimes to do it. Twenty-point favorites going in, the Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 SEC) could have lost in regulation. However, Auburn’s Tank Bigsby running out of bounds with a 10-3 lead inside the final two minutes left Alabama and quarterback Bryce Young just enough time to execute a 97-yard game-tying touchdown drive. The Crimson Tide won it on a two-point conversion pass to John Metchie in the fourth extra period.

Now the teams that everybody expected to meet for the conference championship at the season’s outset finally get to next Saturday at 4 p.m. (CBS) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And the Bulldogs, careful not to look ahead to this inevitable confrontation since clinching the Eastern Division way back on Oct. 30, can finally talk about it.

“We know it’s a big one coming up,” coach Kirby Smart said shortly after the Bulldogs wrapped up their first 12-0 regular season in school history on Saturday in Atlanta. “Everyone’s kind of had it circled and seen it out there. We’ve really tried to work hard on getting better. That’s been the emphasis: What can we improve on? The last two weeks we’ve been trying to be ascending.”

ExploreUGA vs. Tech, Alabama vs. Auburn in Sunday College Football Extra

Georgia was definitely flying high after its 45-0 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday in Atlanta. The victory not only was the Bulldogs’ fourth in a row over the Jackets, it extended Georgia’s current winning streak to 16 games. The school record is 17 straight, which the Bulldogs won from 1945 through 1947.

The 2021 Bulldogs would need to beat Alabama to match that, and that would mean snapping a six-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide. Georgia’s 41-24 loss last year in Tuscaloosa followed Alabama victories in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the 2018 SEC Championship and the 2017 national championship game.

“We only play one game at a time,” junior linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “You ask me after every game and it was always, ‘job not done, job not done.’ So, now we’re on to the next challenge of this season. We’re working to accomplish the goals that we set going into the season. We’re just working on ascending and getting better every week. That’s basically the biggest message.”

Here’s five takeways from Saturday’s victory:

The Pickens factor

As crazy as it might have seemed in March, Georgia star wide receiver George Pickens is back.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior played a few plays at split end against the Yellow Jackets, even hauling in one pass for a five-yard gain early in the second half. Pickens’ return came few days shy of eight months after undergoing ACL reconstructive surgery the first of April. Pickens injured his right knee the second week of spring practice last March

Pickens wasn’t necessarily his old self, when he led the Bulldogs in receiving each of the last two seasons. It remains to be seen if he will be full-go for Alabama next week or fill more of a decoy role as he did against Tech.

“We were able to integrate him a little bit more in practice and try to get him some confidence in his legs and some things and he’s done a really good job,” Smart said. “He’s had good GPS numbers, he’s worked really hard at what he’s doing and he needs to continue to do that. It’s one thing to catch the ball. It’s another to get the signal, get lined up, know who I block, know what I do on my conversions. He’s still getting that back getting in the flow of things.”

Many assumed Pickens, who projects as an NFL player, might not attempt to play his junior season focus instead on getting healthy and prepared for the NFL draft. But Pickens’ coaches and teammates said they’ve known for a while he intended to play again his season.

“George loves football. He’s always wanted to get back and have the opportunity to get out there,” Smart said.

Said quarterback Stetson Bennett: “The people that thought he was just going to rehab and go to the league don’t know George at all. It’s kind of funny to hear those people talk because they don’t know how much he loves football and loves his teammates and how hard he’s attacked every day, rehab-wise, to get back to play with us, not to go to the NFL. … So I’m happy for him. I know how hard he’s worked to get that knee right.”

Injury concerns loom

The plan was for senior left tackle Jamaree Salyer (foot) to return to the field Saturday against Georgia Tech. He didn’t, and that was because of “a little setback” suffered in practice midweek.

“It wasn’t the same injury he had before,” Smart said. “It was some scar tissue. But we’re hoping we’ll be able to get him back.”

Redshirt freshman Broderick Jones started his fourth consecutive game in Salyer’s place.

Just as concerning was free safety Christopher Smith missing a second straight game. The fifth-year senior from Atlanta suffered a knee injury week of the Charleston Southern game and hasn’t been able to get back. Former walkon Dan Jackson filled in for the second straight week and third time this season.

“We’re hopeful for Chris, too,” Smart said.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs lost slot receiver and punt returner Kearis Jackson to a rib injury during the first half. Smart didn’t think the injury was too serious, but said Jackson was in too much pain to return to the game. He finished with 20 yards on two punt returns.

Neat, clean and tidy

The Bulldogs have been dominant all season, but they were remarkably efficient, too, on Saturday. Georgia was not whistled for a penalty on offense or defense and did not commit a turnover.

Smart was a bit taken aback when informed after the game. “I don’t know that I’ve ever really looked at it. You only look at it when it’s bad, right?” Smart said. “If it’s a bunch of them, you’re, ‘oh man, that’s a lot of penalties,’ But I didn’t even know it.”

Smart said he’d have to study the video from the game to decide exactly how he feels about it.

“That can be good and bad,” he said of having zero penalties. “That’s one of those, ‘are you being aggressive enough? Are you blocking aggressive enough?’ You want to press the limits of what you can do. But I’m very pleased with that. We count them in practice and we harp on not being penalized. However, we certainly want to be aggressive.”

Historically stout D

With the 45-0 win over Tech, Georgia’s defense recorded its third shutout of the season. It was the first time the Bulldogs blanked three opponents in the same season since 1981.

“I feel like I’ve been around the league for 20-something years and three shutouts is hard to come by,” Smart said. “I’m really proud of those guys, especially the 2s that were able to come in there late in the third quarter and the whole fourth quarter and hold that standard. I was really proud of them for doing that.”

He should be. Georgia’s defense was historically stingy this season. The Bulldogs allowed just 83 points in 12 games, an average of 6.9 points per game. That’s the lowest total for season since 1986 when the Oklahoma Sooners, led by linebacker Brian Bosworth, gave up 6.8 as game.

With only 171 yards total offense, Tech became the sixth opponent that Georgia below 180 yards this season.

Stet IV in control

Senior Stetson Bennett had one of his best days as Georgia’s starting quarterback on Saturday. Not only did he pass for 255 yards and four touchdowns, his 14 completions (on 20 attempts) went to nine different receivers.

Freshman tight end Brock Bowers led the Bulldogs in receiving for the eighth time in 12 games with three for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Jermaine Burton and Ladd McConkey also hauled in passes for scores as Bennett accounted for all 255 of Georgia’s yards through the air.

But with Alabama looming next week, Bennett wasn’t doing much chest-beating about the performance against an overmatched defense.

“There will be some things to fix,” said Bennett, who has completed 65% percent of his passes for 1,985 yards, 21 touchdown and five interceptions. “Those two drives right before the end of the half were not good enough. Once we watch the film we’ll have a better idea of what those mistakes were. It’s always good to go out there and score like we did today. Hopefully we can carry that momentum into next week.”

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