Georgia football runs the SEC – and coach Kirby Smart deserves top honors | Opinion

ATLANTA – Stetson Bennett IV commanded silence, and Georgia fans followed his instruction.

"U-G-A! U-G-A!" echoed the cheer from Bulldogs revelers throughout Mercedes-Benz Stadium after Georgia's seventh touchdown Saturday – until Georgia's quarterback flapped his arms to call for quiet.

The fans obliged, briefly halting their cheers before resuming after Georgia converted a 2-point conversion.

Party on, Bulldogs. Party on.

The SEC is yours to rule.

Georgia is no underdog story. It possesses too much talent, and Kirby Smart is too good of a coach for such a narrative to be true.

And yet, No. 1 Georgia celebrating a 50-30 romp of No. 13 LSU in the SEC Championship was not the expected story, as recently as August.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) hoist the trophy after defeating LSU in the SEC Championship game.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) hoist the trophy after defeating LSU in the SEC Championship game.

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LSU (9-4) certainly wasn't supposed to be here, and Alabama was expected to reclaim control of the SEC after Georgia (13-0) furnished a record 15 NFL draft selections last spring on the heels of winning the national championship.

With apology to Tennessee’s Josh Heupel and LSU’s Brian Kelly, Smart should be the SEC coach of the year for how he flawlessly positioned Georgia for prolonged dominance even after the departure of so much talent.

Georgia entered this season ranked No. 3. Alabama and Ohio State topped the national championship favorites. On Sunday, Alabama likely will be left out of the playoff, Ohio State will be fortunate to be considered, and Georgia will embrace the top seed as it heads toward a semifinal in which it will be a decided favorite.

Alabama, at the peak of Nick Saban’s dynastic tenure, absorbed sweeping departures of elite talent without wobbling off its lofty perch, but not even Alabama has had to absorb the loss of 15 draft picks.

Georgia is the new Alabama, welcoming in new waves of talent with each elite signing class, developing a new crop of stars and refusing to relinquish its place of supremacy.

And these Bulldogs attained a prize the 2021 team didn't – an SEC title.

"Everyone always compares us to last year’s team," said sophomore linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, a member of the new guard of Georgia stars. "It felt good to do something that last year’s team didn’t do."

Georgia enters the CFP with the expectation that it will become college football’s first repeat national champion since Alabama won titles in 2011 and 2012.

A changing of the guard that started taking form last season in Indianapolis sharpened into focus this season: Georgia rules the SEC. And this may be just the beginning of its reign.

Much like the best teams of Saban’s Alabama dynasty, Georgia can lean on all three phases, and its special teams delivered the spark to awaken the Bulldogs from their first-quarter stupor.

After Nazir Stackhouse blocked an LSU field-goal attempt, the ball came to rest at the 4-yard line.

LSU players walked toward the sideline, unaware that the play was still active.

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Multiple teammates signaled for Georgia’s Christopher Smith to not pick up the ball.

But, why not?

The play was live, and the opposition was vacating the field, leaving nothing but open space between Smith and the end zone, 96 yards away. He hovered over the ball for a few seconds as it wobbled on the turf. Finally, he scooped up the ball, ran past a pair of high-fiving teammates celebrating Georgia’s stop and cruised into the end zone, giving the Bulldogs something better to celebrate.

Special teams exploits were a hallmark of Alabama’s dynasty while Smart was on Saban’s staff as his longtime defensive coordinator. Dependable special teams are now a staple of Georgia’s success.

Georgia’s defense performed far from its best, and LSU piled up the yards after halftime as backup quarterback Garrett Nussmeier connected on a several deep passes.

But the defense delivered its best work in the second quarter, when the Bulldogs seized control and turned this into a rout.

Georgia's offense took its turn in the spotlight. Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards darted through running lanes they could have driven trucks through, thanks to a dominant performance by Georgia’s offensive line.

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV celebratesa touchdown against LSU.
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV celebratesa touchdown against LSU.

And Bennett demonstrated unshakable poise, at every moment. His steady hand has been instrumental in Georgia’s success these past two seasons. He has discarded the old “game manager” label that no longer reflects his heightened ability.

He more than managed this game. He owned it.

Twenty-three completions, 274 yards and four touchdowns.

Alert the Heisman Trophy voters.

I could say that this marks Georgia’s pinnacle, that it will miss linchpins like Bennett and Jalen Carter and Kelee Ringo next season and recede to the pack.

If this were a different program, I’d believe that to be true.

Not Georgia.

Smart built a Red and Black machine that just keeps threshing.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Georgia routs LSU in SEC title game. Give Kirby Smart top honors