What is the opposite of elite?
Surprisingly, it was Georgia's defense during Saturday night's 41-24 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
"We made some mistakes, and that's on all 11 of us," Bulldogs junior outside linebacker Nolan Smith said. "That's not on one person.We don't point fingers. We've just got to go fix it."
The Bulldogs arrived in Atlanta last week not only as the No. 1 team in the country and as 6.5-point favorites but with a defense that was drawing comparisons to Brian Bosworth and the 1986 Oklahoma Sooners, Ed Reed and the 2001 Miami Hurricanes and to Dont'a Hightower and the 2011 Crimson Tide. Georgia roared through an undefeated regular season behind a dominating unit that allowed 230.8 yards and 6.9 points per game, and the start of Saturday's contest went as expected when the Bulldogs took a 10-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter while holding Alabama to 46 yards at that point.
Yet that's exactly when Alabama's offense ignited, with sophomore quarterback Bryce Young throwing for 421 yards and rushing for 40 more on an offense that wound up with 536 total yards.
A 67-yard touchdown pass from Young to Jameson Williams just 44 seconds after Georgia had taken its 10-0 lead completely changed the dynamic inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as Alabama scored 24 second-quarter points against a defense that had allowed seven in that quarter all season. The Crimson Tide averaged 7.7 yards per snap for the game and converted 7-of-14 third-down opportunities.
"When you have zero sacks and pressure as much as we did, you're going to have some one-on-one situations, and you don't win them all," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "We're going to go back and work at it. There were a couple of plays with miscommunication, and there were a couple of plays where we just got beat. We didn't get a lot of pressure.
"The big one early was a bust, and a couple of others we were in man and we just got beat. When you play that kind of offense, you've got to win some one-on-one battles, and we didn't win enough of those."
Georgia has plenty of time to regroup before New Year's Eve, when the College Football Playoff will showcase its semifinal matchups of top-seeded Alabama (12-1) and fourth-seeded Cincinnati (13-0) in the Cotton Bowl and with second-seeded Michigan (12-1) and the third-seeded Bulldogs (12-1) in the Orange Bowl.
Bulldogs fifth-year senior William Poole got a surprise start at the "star" position, which was the second start of his career and the first since a 2018 win over Middle Tennessee State. Alabama had its share of success at Poole's expense, and the 55-yard touchdown from Young to Williams early in the third quarter was the result of Williams quickly racing by redshirt freshman cornerback Keelee Ringo.
The secondary has been the biggest question mark defensively this season - the Bulldogs had four defensive backs drafted earlier this year and lost West Virginia grad transfer Tykee Smith in October to an ACL injury - so this extra time is certain to be used to focus on that area.
"It is hard to add depth," Smart said. "You're trying to grow the younger players - guys like Javon Bullard, David Daniel and Kamari Lassiter - and getting them better to where they can be quality backups or even starters. Those guys have gotten a lot better, but they're not ready to start and they're not ahead of anybody else.
"In some ways, you have who you have, and you've got to develop your roster and get them better."
If Georgia is fortunate enough to topple a Michigan team that has whipped Ohio State and Iowa the past two weekends, the Bulldogs will have to fare better against Young - provided Alabama also wins - on all three defensive levels. Young's 421 aerial yards and 461 total yards set SEC title-game records.
"He's a great player," Bulldogs junior inside linebacker and Butkus Award winner Nakobi Dean said. "We knew that coming in. He's very elusive. He runs the offense well. He did a good job keeping his eyes downfield and avoiding our pass rush.
"Him being able to keep his eyes downfield and make certain throws really helps them."
The performance in Atlanta may remove Georgia's defense from the conversation of all-time greats, though the Bulldogs still lead the nation comfortably with 9.5 points allowed per game and rank second to Wisconsin with 253.2 yards yielded per contest. Smith insists Georgia's pride isn't damaged - "We're either elite or we're not, and we were not elite in this game," he said - and there is no lacking for motivation or payback moving forward.
"They'll listen twice as hard now than they would have if we would have won," Smart said. "I do think that you can get better at this point, and they'll do nothing but work hard now. We haven't played the best version of our self, and it's our job as coaches to get the best version of them out."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.