ATLANTA — No. 1 Georgia’s place in the College Football Playoff was secure even before it beat No. 14 LSU 50-30 to win the SEC championship game Saturday. But Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart and quarterback Stetson Bennett weren’t looking past the importance of a conference title — not after coming up short last season.
A year ago in Atlanta, Georgia lost to Alabama in the SEC title game, before beating the Crimson Tide in the rematch in the CFP national championship game.
“Winning the SEC is a big deal,” Bennett said. “This is the best conference in football. The national championship is huge and a big deal — that’s our next goal. The SEC is the first goal.”
Bennett threw two interceptions in last season’s SEC title-game loss. Against LSU on Saturday, he was almost flawless, completing 23 of 29 passes for 274 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I had several people come up to me and say they thought he played the best game of his career tonight,” Smart said of Bennett. “He played really good.”
Smart said he told his team, “I don’t want one kid to walk out of our program without an SEC championship ring for their career.”
Georgia last won the SEC in 2017, meaning four classes of players hadn’t been champions of the conference.
“That was about to happen if we didn’t get that one,” Smart said. “They said enough was enough tonight. They got ’em one.”
Smart said he wasn’t totally pleased with the game, however, especially the defense, which allowed 549 yards. Asked what the Bulldogs have to work on, Smart said, “Everything. There’s nothing that we can’t work on the next four weeks.”
Smart said teams tend to tackle poorly as the season goes on and defense “deteriorates.”
“That’s not the culture here, and it won’t be accepted or tolerated,” he said. “So we’ve got to fix it.”
As the potential top seed in the playoff, the Bulldogs would have their pick of the semifinal game site. They could stay close to home and play again in Atlanta in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I mean, we like this place. We play pretty good here,” Bennett said, smiling. “I don’t know if it’s the turf or humidity.”
LSU coach Brian Kelly credited Georgia for making the plays to win, but he insisted that the divide between programs “is not huge.”
Georgia capitalized on a blocked field goal, returning it for a touchdown. It also intercepted a pass off an LSU receiver’s helmet, setting up a 22-yard touchdown pass.
Add everything up, Kelly said, and it could have been a close game in the fourth quarter.
“Proud of my team,” he said. “Proud of the fight they gave today. We were just a little short.”