ATLANTA — Whether or not Georgia can successfully defend last season’s national championship will be determined in the months ahead.
What the Bulldogs proved Saturday is that this is the furthest thing from a rebuilding year.
Despite losing a record 15 players in April’s NFL draft, the reigning national champions were in midseason form — heck, College Football Playoff form — during a 49-3 bashing of Oregon at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game inside a decked-in-red Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Bulldogs posted 571 yards and were 9-for-9 on third-down conversions until less than 11 minutes remained, and they held the often dangerous Ducks to 313 yards and out of the end zone.
“I was really proud of how our kids played,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We talked about coming out and playing as if we were hunting, and we wanted to play connected football. It’s all we talked about all week — playing connected and playing aggressive and that we were going to be the hunter.
“The kids kind of bought into that theme.”
It was the largest margin of victory since the inception of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in 2008, topping Alabama’s 42-3 throttling of Duke in 2019, and it gave the Southeastern Conference its 12th consecutive win in a Chick-fil-A season opener.
Any hopes for a memorable showdown between the No. 3 Bulldogs and No. 11 Ducks were dismissed from the start, as Bulldogs sixth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett introduced himself to early Heisman Trophy consideration by completing 25 of 31 passes for a career-high 368 yards and two touchdowns for an efficiency rating of 201.7.
“I’m most proud of the third downs,” Bennett said. “We’ve harped on third downs and the red zone this whole offseason. When you’ve got four seconds to throw the ball — yeah, I think we gained confidence in ourselves and the preparation that we put into it to go out there and execute like that.”
Bennett’s favorite targets were running back Kenny McIntosh, who had nine receptions for 117 yards, and former North Murray High School standout Ladd McConkey, who had five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. Of McIntosh’s 117 receiving yards, a whopping 109 came after the catch.
“That was really fun, because I love catching the ball out of the backfield,” McIntosh said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a game like that. It was fun to run with the ball in my hand like a receiver.”
The Ducks were playing their first game under Dan Lanning, who was Georgia’s defensive coordinator the past three seasons. If there was any edge Oregon had with Lanning’s knowledge of the coaching staff and the personnel of the Bulldogs, it certainly wasn’t reflected at any point.
“Everybody knows I have a ton of respect for Kirby,” Lanning said. “I told our coaching staff before we played the game that every single one of our goals is going to be ahead of us regardless of how this game turns out, but it’s a tough locker room, because we have competitors.”
Said Smart: “He’s going to do a really good job at Oregon. He’s relentless, and they’ll bounce back from this. He knows we have better players. He’ll never say it, but he knows.”
Georgia’s first drive of the season was an old-school beauty, covering 85 yards in 12 plays and culminating with a 9-yard misdirection run by McConkey. Bennett went 7-of-9 passing for 66 yards on that first possession and added a 7-yard run.
After an acrobatic interception by Malaki Starks halted Oregon’s second possession, Bennett guided the Bulldogs 92 yards in seven plays and finished it off with a 1-yard run on the first play of the second quarter to make it 14-0. Georgia’s second score was set up by a 25-yard pass from Bennett to McConkey to the 1.
The Bulldogs tallied their third touchdown drive in as many tries on a 1-yard run by McIntosh, with the big play of that 56-yard march coming on a 27-yard strike from Bennett to Adonai Mitchell that was accompanied by a roughing-the-passer penalty.
With Georgia leading 21-3 in the final minute of the first half, Bennett and McIntosh connected on a 38-yard pass to the Oregon 4. On the ensuing play, Bennett rolled right and found himself under pressure, so he reversed field and continued to lose ground before throwing over the left side to a wide-open McConkey in the end zone for a 28-3 advantage.
“It wasn’t smart. I don’t need to do that,” Bennett said of his highlight scramble. “I knew that we had motioned Ladd over there, and when I started scrambling I tried to find him, because I knew he was over there somewhere.”
Georgia will hold its home opener next weekend against Samford having likely been the most impressive team of college football’s first full weekend.
“Our expectations are already in check,” Smart said. “Externally, there are expectations every year, and we embrace the expectations. We hunt, and we do the best job we can, and if it falls short, it falls short.”
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com.
This story was updated with more information at 9:10 p.m. on Sept. 3, 2022.