Looking Like a Title Defender, Georgia Thrashes Oregon

ATLANTA — Last December, the last time Georgia swaggered into Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Bulldog faithful fell all but silent long before the end.

There were few, if any, callings of the Dawgs as that Southeastern Conference championship game became a debacle, and no roars for a Georgia trophy presentation. In fact, by the end of an evening with a double-digit loss to Alabama, there were not all that many home state fans left.

Nine months — and, despite that December night, one national championship win over Alabama — later, Georgia soundly reclaimed the theoretically neutral turf about 70 miles from its stately campus in Athens. From start to finish, the No. 3 Bulldogs threw up thickets of speed, pressure, power and guile to crush No. 11 Oregon, 49-3.

Georgia took just 12 offensive snaps to score for the first time this season. With a bit more than six minutes to play in the first quarter, Stetson Bennett softly tossed the ball to Ladd McConkey, a redshirt sophomore who darted left and thundered toward the end zone close to his university’s Redcoat Marching Band, which responded with brassy thunder of its own.

The Bulldogs waited until the second quarter’s opening moments to score again, this time with a quick rush by Bennett to cap a 92-yard touchdown drive. For its third touchdown, Georgia again returned to the ground, entrusting the senior tailback Kenny McIntosh with an end zone-bound run to push his team’s tally to 21.

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But it was not all Georgia’s wizardry, for the Bulldogs had help from Bo Nix, the Oregon quarterback who transferred to the Pacific Northwest from Auburn. Nix threw two interceptions in the first half, and both led to touchdown drives for Georgia, which started with one from its own 8-yard line after Malaki Starks snagged a Nix pass.

Oregon’s best chance to stem Georgia’s momentum came with about four minutes remaining in the first half, when the Ducks maneuvered into the red zone. But a pair of incomplete passes and a false-start penalty left Oregon to settle for a field goal.

In the half’s closing minute, Bennett — so derided after the December loss to Alabama that Coach Kirby Smart faced questions over whether the quarterback would start in the College Football Playoff — escaped a tackle to lob a pass to McConkey and push Georgia to a 28-3 lead at halftime.

In Saturday’s game, Bennett logged 368 passing yards and completed 81 percent of his throws. McIntosh led Georgia with 117 receiving yards.

Some of the Georgia stat padding came as soon as the Bulldogs opened the second half, when Bennett helped engineer a six-play drive that featured Kendall Milton jogging past the goal line.

Oregon fans stuck around anyway, the rebirth they sought nowhere in sight during Dan Lanning’s debut as the Oregon coach after four seasons at Georgia, including three as defensive coordinator. Instead, they witnessed a showing that only grew worse: Georgia scored touchdowns on its first seven possessions and did not punt until there were about 10 minutes to go in the game.

The Georgia-Oregon matchup was one of Saturday’s few contests that pitted one marquee program against another, or so recent history and the preseason polls suggested. But the season’s first full slate of games offered glimpses of the chaos, some of it cringe-inducing, and premature hope that so often thrills and terrorizes fans.

East Carolina missed an upset of No. 13 North Carolina State by 1 point, the same margin by which Rutgers escaped Boston College. North Carolina survived Appalachian State, 63-61. Iowa managed to get past South Dakota State while scoring all of 7 points — on a field goal and a pair of safeties. (“I’ve never been around a game like that,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, in charge in Iowa City since 1999, said.)

Oregon was one of the last teams left behind last year, done in by a November trip to Utah that also shattered the Pac-12 Conference’s playoff dreams. But Friday’s announcement that the playoff will expand, from four teams to 12, no later than 2026, could someday make much-hyped meetings like the one on Saturday in Atlanta less a jousting for a playoff spot than a selling point in the quest for a higher seeding.

But that reality is perhaps four seasons from now. This campaign is being played in a world that has never seen a two-loss team reach the playoff, one where fans are accustomed to bickering over which one-loss team(s) should make the cut.

Saturday made Georgia’s journey a measure clearer, in part because the Bulldogs are not scheduled to play another ranked opponent until Nov. 19. As it so happens, that is when Oregon will meet Utah again.

Then, with the final playoff rankings nearing, an afternoon in Atlanta will probably still be resonating.

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