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Crimson Tide Hand Bulldogs First Loss in SEC Title Clash


Georgia defensive back Kelee Ringo (5) and Georgia defensive back Lewis Cine (16) during the Bulldogs' game with Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

ATLANTA — The top-ranked Georgia football team suffered its first loss of the season Saturday night, falling 41-24 to No. 4 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.


Playing for the SEC title for the fourth time in the past five years, Georgia (12-1) led 3-0 after a quiet opening quarter and then went up 10-0 on the opening play of the second quarter. But for the next two-plus quarters, the Bulldogs’ top-rated defense struggled to contain an explosive Crimson Tide (12-1) passing game that was able to connect for multiple big plays and long touchdowns en route to the conference championship.


The Bulldogs hadn’t lost a game in more than a year, since falling to Florida on Nov. 7, 2020. After that, Georgia closed the 2020 season with four straight wins and then went 12-0 during the 2021 regular season.


Georgia and Alabama will learn their College Football Playoff fate at noon Sunday when the CFP pairings are released on ESPN. The Bulldogs have held the top spot in the rankings since the CFP committee released its first top 25 on Nov. 2.


Saturday’s SEC Championship Game started slowly, with the teams trading defensive stops. Georgia’s offense then struck first. Putting together a nice drive, with strong runs by Zamir White and James Cook, the Bulldogs drove down to the Alabama 11-yard line before having to settle for a 38-yard Jack Podlesny field goal, giving Georgia a 3-0 lead with 6:01 to play in the opening quarter.


Those were the only points of the first quarter, but the Bulldogs were knocking on the door of the Alabama end zone as the second quarter began. A drive that began at the Bulldog 3-yard line, and went backward to the 2 after a penalty, marched inside the Alabama 10.


Quarterback Stetson Bennett hit Jermaine Burton for 16 yards on the right side. The run game produced another first down, and then Bennett hit tight end John FitzPatrick up the right hash for 23 yards, followed by a 37-yard strike up the left side from Bennett to wideout George Pickens, who made his first appearance of the season last week against Georgia Tech after suffering a major knee injury in the spring.


On the first play of the second quarter, from the 5, Bennett lofted the ball toward the back of the end zone where 6-foot-7 tight end Darnell Washington went up and got over an Alabama defender for the game’s first touchdown and a 10-0 Georgia lead with 14:56 left in the half. It was the first touchdown of Washington’s Bulldog career.


Alabama cut the lead to 3 less than a minute later, hitting a 67-yard touchdown strike on third-and-2 from its 33, making it a 10-7 game with 14:12 on the clock. Alabama scored again on its next drive, when quarterback Bryce Young connected with wideout John Metchie for a 13-yard score, putting the Tide ahead 14-10 with 9:46 to play in the half. It marked the latest in a game that Georgia had trailed all season.


The Crimson Tide added to their lead with a 33-yard Will Reichard field goal at the end of a 12-play drive that the defense squashed at the Georgia 15-yard line.


Now trailing 17-10, the Bulldogs got the ball back with 3:28 to play in the half. Flags on four straight plays had the ball moving backward and forward, but then Kenny McIntosh ran for 12 yards to the Bama 32. On the next play, Bennett tossed a short pass to his left to Ladd McConkey, and the speedy and shifty redshirt freshman did the rest, following his blockers and cutting his way up the middle for a 32-yard touchdown with 2:06 to play win the half. Podlesny’s extra point tied the score 17-17.


Young and the Tide weren’t done, driving 75 yards and scoring on an 11-yard run by the quarterback with 26 seconds left in the half. Alabama led 24-17 at the end of a busy first half in which the teams combined for 585 yards of offense: 365 for Alabama and 220 for the Bulldogs.


Georgia didn’t allow more than 17 points in a game during the regular season, but the Crimson Tide, led by their potent passing game, scored 24 in the second quarter. The Bulldogs hadn’t trailed at the half since being behind 14-10 at halftime of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day against Cincinnati. Georgia rallied and won that game 24-21 thanks to 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.


There was no big rally Saturday.


The Crimson Tide offense struck again on the opening drive of the third quarter, going ahead 31-17 on a 55-yard strike from Young to Jameson Williams. It was the fifth straight possession in which Alabama was able to score, against a Georgia defense that had allowed just 6.9 points per game all season.


Georgia drove down to the Alabama 19 late in the third quarter but was unable to get points from the drive. The Bulldogs’ next drive ended in an interception returned 42 yards for a touchdown, putting Alabama up 38-17 with 11:59 to play.


The Bulldogs’ Bennett to freshman tight end Brock Bowers connection continued to pay dividends Saturday, including an 18-yard touchdown on a screen pass that the 6-4 Bowers turned into a score by shaking and bouncing off several Tide defenders before sprinting in for the score that cut the lead to 38-24 with 9:42 remaining.


Alabama added a 41-yard field goal with 1:59 remaining to make the final margin 41-24. The Tide outgained the Bulldogs 536-449, with Young setting an SEC Championship Game passing record with 421 yards through the air.


Bennett finished the game with 340 yards passing, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Bowers led Georgia’s receivers with 10 catches for 139 yards, while safety Lewis Cine led Georgia’s defense with seven tackles, all solo stops.