ATLANTA -- No. 1 Georgia made its case to remain atop the College Football Playoff Rankings as the Bulldogs crushed No. 14 LSU 50-30 in the 2022 SEC Championship Game. The Dawgs improved to 13-0 for the first time in program history ahead of Sunday's release of the final CFP Rankings. The reigning national champions never trailed as Georgia captured the program's fourth SEC championship and first since 2017.
Even last season's Georgia team with its historically dominant defense did not win the SEC crown. This marks the first time the Dawgs have emerged from the SEC title game with an unbeaten record; the 2002 and 2017 teams each suffered one regular-season loss, while the 2005 team lost twice in the before winning the conference.
The steady hand of sixth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett IV -- coupled with some horrific breaks for LSU -- helped the Bulldogs open a 35-10 halftime lead. In particular, a 95-yard touchdown return from Christopher Smith on a blocked field goal and an interception that deflected off the helmet of an LSU player helped sparked Georgia in the first half.
After the break, UGA withstood a charge from a resilient LSU squad. Tigers QB Jayden Daniels left the game at halftime after appearing to aggravate an ankle injury. With backup Garrett Nussmeier in the game, LSU pulled within 35-17 and were threatening to draw even closer when the Dawgs came up with a critical stop on fourth-and-1 to keep LSU out of the end zone midway through the third quarter.
Georgia shut the door from there with scoring drives of 95 and 75 yards for its 12th double-digit victory in 13 games this season entering the playoff.
Bad breaks for the Tigers
LSU appeared poised to score the first points of the game as the Tigers drove deep into Georgia territory on its second possession. Then came a bizarre play that flipped the momentum and set the tone for the first half. Georgia defensive tackle Nazir Stackhouse blocked a 32-yard field goal attempt from LSU kicker Damian Ramos, sending the ball dribbling toward the goal-line. Before the ball stopped moving, Georgia's Christopher Smith picked it up and ran 95 yards for a stunning touchdown.
Later in the half, Georgia benefitted from a similarly peculiar interception as linebacker Smael Mondon Jr. came up with a pick after the football deflected off the helmet of LSU receiver Jack Bech. On the first play of Georgia's ensuing possession, Bennett found Ladd McConkey for a 22-yard touchdown strike that put the Bulldogs up 21-7.
Combined, the two plays amounted to crippling blows for an LSU team that entered as a 17.5-point underdog.
Bennett's unfinished business
There is little that Bennett has not accomplished in his storybook career. The undersized former walk-on can now add an SEC championship to his list. Bennett threw four touchdown passes -- all in the first half -- and spread the football around to 10 different targets during the game. In the SEC Championship Game era, quarterbacks such as Eric Zeier, Quincy Carter, David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray and Jake Fromm have come through Georgia and gone on to become NFL Draft picks. Each engineered their share of team success, but none can boast a legacy like what Bennett's in his winding journey to program lore.
With an SEC title now on his resume along with last season's national title and another CFP performance forthcoming, Bennett's body of work as Georgia's quarterback compares favorably to any of his predecessors. Even if he's not drafted and never plays a down in the NFL, he's cemented his place in Georgia football -- and SEC football -- history.
Undisputed No. 1?
Tennessee ranked No. 1 and Georgia ranked No. 3 in the first CFP Rankings of the season. The Bulldogs promptly changed that with a convincing 27-13 win over the Volunteers on Nov. 5. They have ranked No. 1 in each edition of the rankings since and made an emphatic case to stay there with their performance against LSU. If Georgia is indeed ranked No. 1 in Sunday's final release of the CFP rankings, it would mark the first time in the CFP era that the Bulldogs have entered the playoff in the top spot. The 2017 team was ranked No. 3 and lost a classic national championship game to Alabama, while last year's squad was ranked No. 3 behind Alabama and Michigan before going on to beat the Crimson Tide for the title.
LSU shows promise under Brian Kelly
It's been a peculiar debut season for LSU coach Brian Kelly. The Tigers began with a loss to Florida State and that was followed with some ugly moments, such as a 40-13 home loss to Tennessee and a surprising loss at Texas A&M last week. But LSU made obvious strides from last season and won what many regard as college football's toughest division. While the final score of the SEC Championship Game suggests LSU was dominated, the Tigers also showed flashes that perhaps they aren't far away from contending in the national picture. Had Daniels been fully healthy, his dual-threat dynamic could have given Georgia headaches, and if the two strange plays mentioned above had gone their way, it undoubtedly would have led to a more competitive game. Nonetheless, the play of Nussmeier in the second half and the overall resilience of LSU, which put up 549 yards against one of the nation's top defenses. Nussmeier was 15-of-27 passing for 294 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Georgia's health moving ahead
Something to watch moving forward will be the status of receiver Ladd McConkey and offensive lineman Warren McClendon. Both are key cogs for the team who missed the second half due to knee injures. McConkey has emerged as Georgia's top wide receiver and McClendon has started every game this season at right tackle. Their health will loom large for the Bulldogs moving into the College Football Playoff.