ATLANTA — When teams begin to win at the elite level of Kirby Smart's Georgia Bulldogs, who are 72-10 since the start of the 2017 season and an eye-popping 32-1 since mid-November of 2020, comparisons become inevitable.
There are now two phenomenal candidates for the most exciting triumph of the Smart era.
"What a game," Bulldogs sixth-year quarterback Stetson Bennett said early Sunday morning after top-seeded Georgia (14-0) rallied for a 42-41 topping of fourth-seeded Ohio State (11-2) in the most memorable Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl ever staged. "I'm a little bit biased, but that might be better than the '17 Rose Bowl."
Bennett was a freshman walk-on guiding the scout team in Georgia's 2017 Southeastern Conference championship run, and he first gained attention by emulating Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield before that season's Rose Bowl semifinal in the College Football Playoff. The Sooners would jump out to a 31-14 lead late in the second quarter, but Georgia would roar back behind the strength of 326 rushing yards from its touted tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb for a 54-48 victory in double overtime.
That has always stood as the gold standard of thrilling wins in the Smart era, but Saturday night is being viewed as equally fulfilling.
"I believe so," said fifth-year senior receiver Kearis Jackson, who was a midyear enrollee and practiced briefly with the 2017 Bulldogs before they traveled to Pasadena, California. "It didn't go into overtime, but it did come down to a field goal."
The Rose Bowl had the slight edge in total offense and big-play scores, but the momentary tension as Ohio State kicker Noah Ruggles was lining up for his 50-yard attempt that sailed wide left may be unmatched by anything that transpired in Pasadena. The magnitude of these two games separate them from other close wins under Smart, which would include prevailing 28-27 at Missouri and 27-24 at Kentucky in 2016 and the 24-21 topping of Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl after the 2020 season.
Smart didn't provide a ranking when asked, though the Rose Bowl and Saturday's Peach Bowl semifinal are certain to be relived more than last season's 34-11 trampling of Michigan during the Orange Bowl semifinal that preceded the 33-18 defeat of Alabama in Indianapolis that sealed Georgia's first national championship since its magical run in 1980.
"It is amazing anytime you win," Smart said. "I think emotionally it takes a lot more out of you as compared to maybe the Michigan game was last year in terms of the game being over in the fourth quarter. This was an emotional roller coaster.
"It was a back-and-forth game. It was a 'Who's going to blink?' These were two really good teams fighting."
Of course, one thing shared by any semifinal win in any athletic competition is that it doesn't immediately result in a crown. Georgia's goal of a second consecutive national championship will have to be achieved Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, where the Bulldogs will face third-seeded TCU (13-1), which outlasted second-seeded Michigan (13-1) in Saturday's Fiesta Bowl, 51-45.
Smart and his assistants started studying the Horned Frogs on Sunday, adding that playing a national semifinal an hour from campus did provide an advantage from that standpoint. He had hoped his players would get decent sleep, with that aspect aided by a very brief Peach Bowl celebration.
"We executed when we needed, and that's all that matters," Jackson said. "With the way games have turned out for us this year, we haven't been through that adversity, but we were able to do it in a big game. This was not a championship game. It was a playoff game."
Said redshirt sophomore receiver Arian Smith: "The job is not finished. We didn't play our best game even though we won, so there was really nothing to celebrate."
Saturday marked the biggest fourth-quarter comeback — the Bulldogs trailed 38-24 with less than 10 minutes remaining — in the Smart era and the biggest comeback by any team in the 26 games played so far in the College Football Playoff's nine-year history.
Georgia's biggest game of the season contained a variety of faces, with junior inside linebackers Rian Davis and Trezmen Marshall and freshman outside linebacker Marvin Jones Jr. used in key situations.
"We wanted to play a lot of players," Smart said. "When you get this late in the season, guys get winded. It was an up-tempo game. We always say that if you're good enough and you practice hard enough, you should play. Against LSU, we got some guys who got winded. We wanted to play Trezmen, and Rian and Marvin had to play.
"We had (linebacker) Chaz (Chambliss) go down with an injury. We had (tight end) Darnell (Washington) go down with an injury. At one point, we had our third- and fourth-string guys on special teams who hadn't played all year."
Georgia is 4-0 all-time against TCU, which includes a 31-23 victory in the Liberty Bowl after the 2016 season. ... The Bulldogs are 36-21-3 in bowl games, with both their victories and appearances ranking second nationally to Alabama. ... Georgia holds the nation's longest consecutive bowl streak at 26. ... The 2022 senior class added to its school-record mark, which is now 48-5. ... Georgia will enter the championship game having scored 75 times (52 touchdowns and 23 field goals) in 77 red-zone opportunities.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.