ATLANTA — What a difference three weeks can make.
Bouncing back from a blowout loss to Auburn, No. 6 Georgia turned the rematch into a rout of its own. Roquan Smith came up with two crucial turnovers, freshman Jake Fromm threw a pair of touchdown passes and the Bulldogs cruised to a 28-7 victory over the No. 4 Tigers in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday.
Georgia (12-1) is almost certainly headed to the College Football Playoff in just its second year under coach Kirby Smart, who learned a thing or two about what it took to get there in his previous job as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama.
“We were ready,” Fromm said. “We wanted to show that we could play better than we did.”
Boy, did they ever.
As the final seconds ticked down on a thoroughly dominating performance, Smart took the customary drenching with a gleeful smile and bounced up and down on the sideline with his players, having guided the Bulldogs to their first SEC championship since 2005.
Of course, they’ve got their sights on a bigger prize.
Georgia hasn’t won a national title since 1980, a drought that has only grown more and more irritating to the red-and-black faithful as schools all around them — Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Tennessee, Clemson, Florida State — finished No. 1 in the years since.
Auburn (10-3) was the hottest team in the country, rolling into Atlanta after wins over Georgia and then-No. 1 Alabama in its last three games. But the Tigers were stymied by their own mistakes, also including a blocked field goal, and they had no answer for a Georgia team eager to make up for its embarrassing 40-17 defeat on the Plains .
“They flipped the script on us from the last game,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and freshman D’Andre Swift provided a much more effective running game , which opened up things for the young quarterback. Fromm completed 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown to Isaac Nauta in the second quarter and a 6-yarder to Terry Godwin with just over 13 minutes remaining that essentially sealed Georgia’s victory.
The Bulldogs struggled to an 8-5 mark in Smart’s first season, but the former Georgia defensive back insisted he was establishing a culture that would return his alma mater to national prominence.
It happened in Year 2.
Georgia (12-1), which was No. 6 in the latest CFP standings, will surely move into the top four after its dominating performance against the Tigers. Auburn was ranked second in the CFP poll but managed only 259 yards after piling up 488 in its Nov. 11 rout of the Bulldogs.
Swift, another impressive Georgia freshman, finished off the Georgia’s rout by breaking loose for a 64-yard touchdown run with 10:34 remaining . The Georgia line opened up a huge hole through the left side, receiver Javon Wims made a key block on the perimeter and Swift dashed to the end zone without being touched, sending the Georgia fans into a raucous celebration that figured to go on well into the night.
Swift rushed for 88 yards, Chubb had 77 and Michel added 45 before he left the game in the third quarter with what is believed to be a minor knee injury. In the first game, Chubb was held to 27 and Michel 21 — their lowest outputs of the season.
Auburn started out the game like it was headed for another big win.
Jarrett Stidham capped the opening possession with s 6-yard scoring pass to Nate Craig-Myers, and Auburn pushed into position to extend its lead early in the second quarter.
That’s when the game suddenly turned.
Stidham dropped back to throw, couldn’t find anyone open and didn’t sense Davin Bellamy coming up behind him. The Georgia linebacker stripped the ball away and Smith fell on it for the Bulldogs at the 16.
Georgia drove the other way for the tying score and tacked on the first of two field goals by Rodrigo Blankenship for a 10-7 lead at the half.
Auburn wasted another scoring opportunity in the third quarter when Daniel Carlson’s 31-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle . Then, trailing 13-7, another turnover on the first play of the fourth quarter finished off the Tigers.
Kerryon Johnson, who played despite an ailing right shoulder, was stripped of the ball and Smith scooped it up again at the Auburn 39 , retaining the spiked, Road Warrior-style vest that Georgia awards to players who take the ball away from the other team, the Dawgs’ version of the turnover chain.
Smith picked up another prize after the game: the MVP award.
Georgia: The Bulldogs were clearly motivated by that loss at Auburn, turning in a much more physical performance after getting totally dominated in the first meeting. Smart did a masterful job of using a loss to fire up his players.
Auburn: The Tigers bounced back from an excruciating defeat at LSU, where they blew a 20-point lead, with an impressive five-game winning streak. But a third straight victory over a Top 10 opponent was too much to ask, and now everyone will turn their attention to Malzahn’s future. He’s been mentioned as a possible candidate at Arkansas.
Johnson, whose status wasn’t known until game time, managed just 44 yards on 13 carries and a single yard on two pass receptions.
He wasn’t the only one who struggled.
Stidham, who played brilliantly during the five-game run, was held to 16 of 32 for 145 yards by a Georgia defense that brought heavy pressure all game. He was sacked three times.
Georgia: Will likely head to either the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl to play in a semifinal playoff game.
Auburn: Could wind up returning to Atlanta on New Year’s Day for the Peach Bowl.