MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – With an overwhelming half at the Orange Bowl, No. 3 Georgia showed that a humiliating loss to Alabama did not break the Bulldogs.
In fact, it could have made them even stronger.
Stetson Bennett threw three touchdown passes, Nakobe Dean led an angry defense and Georgia returned to their dominant ways, beating No. 2 Michigan 34-11 on Friday night to advance to the College Football Playoff Championship.
“Answered a million questions about our team, came back and how you played,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We have a lot of guys with high grades on this team and they played after today.”
Georgia (13-1) had a rematch with the Southeastern Conference nemesis Alabama (13-1) in the title fight on January 10 in Indianapolis.
It was 27 days ago that Crimson Tide rolled through the Bulldogs and shattered their air of invincibility after a 12-0 regular season in which they were hardly challenged.
“All our guys did was work,” Smart said of how they reacted to the loss and three weeks after being asked what went wrong.
The Bulldogs quickly responded to questions about whether the damage from the 41-24 setback would continue.
Georgia became the first team in CFP’s eight-year history to score on each of its first five ball possessions, leading 27-3 at the break.
“We knew we were better than what we showed the last game,” Bennett said.
Michigan (12-2) went into its first playoff appearance after a milestone season, after ending a long drought against rival Ohio State on its way to winning the Big Ten.
“Let’s tear it up,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told ESPN moments before kickoff.
The Bulldogs certainly did, playing as a team to prove a point.
Georgia scored touchdowns the first two times it had the ball, moving it at will against the Heisman Trophy second-place Aidan Hutchinson and the Michigan defense.
Bennett found freshman tight-end Brock Bowers for an 8-yard touchdown pass to cover an 80-yard opening drive.
“It set the tone for the game,” Smart said.
Georgia took a two-touchdown lead and hit Michigan with some of the tricks that the Wolverines have used so well. Tailback Kenny McIntosh swept to the right and missed a perfect pass to Adonai Mitchell for an 18-yard TD that made it 14-0 less than five minutes inside the game.
The Wolverines had rolled to their first Big Ten championship since 2004 without being behind by as many as seven points this season.
“I mean, we gave everything we got and we were beaten tonight,” quarterback Cade McNamara said. “But I think when we give it some time, we will be able to appreciate many of the amazing things we were able to accomplish this season.”
The Bulldogs hit field goals on their next two possessions, and Bennett joined on a 57-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Burton, who stroked down the sideline to make it 27-3 with 1:38 left in the half.
And that was pretty much it. The Bulldogs defeated the Wolverines 330-101 in the first 30 minutes.
“I thought our (defensive) front controlled the battle line. I thought our offensive line controlled the battle line,” Smart said. “It’s a total team effort.”
The Georgia defense, which set a historic pace and allowed less than one touchdown per game before being shredded by Alabama, strangled a Michigan offensive built to bully opponents.
The Bulldogs had none of that.
Dean, the Butkus Award-winning linebacker, diagnosed play before snapping and chased ball holders from sideline to sideline.
Dean said he noted how Georgia’s defensive dominance, for the first time this season, seemed to be in doubt.
“We always want to play with a chip on the shoulder,” said Dean, who had seven tackles, two for losses and one forced fumble.
The massive nose tackle Jordan Davis collapsed in the middle of a Michigan offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award as the best in the country.
“It was our plan to go in, to be a physical, more dominant front,” All-American Davis said.
Cornerback Derion Kendrick, a transfer for Clemson, had two interceptions and was the game’s defensive player.
The Wolverines finished with 88 yards after averaging 223 per game. McNamara was 11 for 19 for 106 yards.
It was simply no competition, and now the Bulldogs will get a shot at redemption against Alabama, who are trying to win their first national title since 1980.
The only thing that stands in the way is the most accomplished dynasty in the history of college football, and rival Smart, a longtime Nick Saban assistant in Alabama, has tried to model his program after.
Smart missed the festive Gatorade bath from his players after the game, saying he wanted to get a real shower and get started catching the team Georgia has been chasing for five years.
“They got a lead of five, six hours,” Smart said. “To be honest with you, I’m not interested in celebrating it.”
Georgia: There was plenty of talk about whether Bennett should remain the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback after throwing two interceptions against Alabama. Georgia fans wondered if it was time to switch back to USC transfer JT Daniels, who was QB1 to start the season before an injury opened the door for Bennett.
The former walk-on completed his first nine passes against Michigan en route to 307 yards and showed more than enough arm strength on a 53-yard bomb to James Cook in the second quarter. Bennett was named offensive MVP.
Michigan: The 2021 season will provide plenty for the Wolverines to look back on with joy.
“This is the start,” Harbaugh subsequently told ESPN. “In Michigan’s history, it’s one of the best teams ever.”
The Orange Bowl showed that it’s one thing to close the gap to Ohio State, but there are currently two teams at the top of college football in a completely different class than the rest.
Georgia: The Bulldogs must face Alabama for the second time in the CFP title game. The Bulldogs have lost seven overall meetings in a row against Tide, including the 2017 CFP Championship in overtime.