ATLANTA — After blowing a 14-point lead in the second half of Saturday’s SEC championship game — one that saw him gamble and lose on a fake punt try late — Georgia coach Kirby Smart said the No. 4 Bulldogs proved they should be among the four teams selected for the College Football Playoff.
“We told our kids that for a week they would hear nothing but how good Alabama was, and that’s what they heard,” Smart said after the top-ranked Crimson Tide‘s 35-28 win. “Everybody said they were unbeatable, and everybody talked about it.
“We knew what we had, and we knew we’ve got a good football team. We’ve got a really physical football team. We’ve got a talented football team. And we most definitely have one of the best four teams in the country. The system is what it is. What happens happens.”
The loss dropped the Bulldogs to 11-2, which might make it difficult for them to remain ahead of No. 5 Oklahoma, which has lost only once and won a Big 12 title with a 39-27 victory over No. 14 Texas on Saturday.
“Well, it boils down to one thing: Do you want the four best teams in or not? It’s that simple,” Smart said. “[Alabama] sat at home last year and got to go in the game, while everybody else is beating each other up, and they had a good football team. Give that coach across the sideline [Alabama’s Nick Saban] a vote who he doesn’t want to play. He’ll start with us. I promise you, [he] don’t want to play us. It’s not our decision. It’s their decision. But you’re going to put the four best football teams in.”
Smart defended his decision to call a fake punt with about three minutes left in the game. With the score tied at 28, the Bulldogs faced fourth-and-11 at midfield. Instead of trying to pin the Crimson Tide deep with a punt, Smart elected to snap the ball to freshman quarterback Justin Fields, who was lined up as a punt protector.
Smart said Fields was supposed to throw a pass to tailback D’Andre Swift, but Alabama snuffed out the fake. When linebacker Dylan Moses covered up Swift at the last moment, Fields didn’t have anywhere to throw. He was stopped for a 2-yard gain, and Georgia turned the ball over at the Alabama 48.
The Crimson Tide needed five plays to score the winning touchdown, with backup quarterback Jalen Hurts running for a 15-yard score with 1:04 left.
“He wasn’t open,” Fields said. “I was about to throw it to him, but somebody went over and covered him right as the ball was snapped. It wasn’t there, and there wasn’t anywhere to go with the ball.”
Smart said the Bulldogs were supposed to snap the ball before Alabama realized that Swift was open.
“[We] thought it was there, and it was there today,” Smart said. “We were going to snap the ball quick. We took too long to snap the ball. They didn’t have a guy covered. We had a guy wide open. We took so long to snap it that they recognized it and got the guy covered late.”
Saban said Alabama’s coaches hadn’t seen the fake punt on film.
“We were screaming on the bench because the formation they were in, the second guy was eligible,” Saban said. “We were afraid we weren’t going to get him covered up, but we did. We were in punt safe, so we had the defense out on the field. Most of the time when you leave your defense out there, you can defend most of the fakes. Our guys did a good job. It was a big play in the game, because it gave us really good field position and allowed us to go down and score the winning touchdown.”
Despite the trick play not working, Smart said he didn’t second-guess the decision.
“I wanted to be aggressive,” Smart said. “Look, I wasn’t coming here to play to tie, to play to keep it close. We came here to win the game. We wanted to win the game. These kids deserve to win the game, and we weren’t able to do it.”
Smart said there were other factors that contributed to the Bulldogs blowing a 28-14 lead in the second half, but he understands that most fans will probably remember the fake punt as their ultimate undoing.
“We’re a few plays away,” Smart said. “There were a lot of plays in that game. Everybody is going to point to whether it’s a [missed] field goal, whether it’s a fake punt or whether it’s a breakdown on third-down contain or fourth-down contain and they score. A fumble. It’s so many things. It’s inches, and we didn’t get the inches tonight. We’ve got a damn good football team.”
It was the second straight season in which the Bulldogs blew a big second-half lead against the Crimson Tide. Last season, Georgia squandered a pair of 13-point leads in the second half of a 26-23 loss in overtime to Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
“[I’m] sick,” Smart said. “We’ve got to play better in the fourth quarter. That’s a big thing for us. We talked about it at halftime. We wanted to come out and be the more physical, dominant team and play the second half and win. We couldn’t close the deal. I don’t know why that is. We’re going to figure it out, though.”