ATHENS, Ga. — Carson Beck said "of course" he battled nerves in his first start for No. 1 Georgia.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart insisted he saw no sign the junior quarterback lacked the composure that has become his trademark even while having to patiently wait behind Stetson Bennett for his opportunity to play.
Beck overcame a sluggish first half to throw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Mekhi Mews, and the two-time reigning national champions leaned on their defense in the season opener to overwhelm the University of Tennessee at Martin, 48-7, on Saturday night at Sanford Stadium.
"I never thought he wasn't comfortable," Smart said, adding, "Carson has got a calm about him."
Beck said he "felt good" and "was excited to be out there," but admitted he felt nervous early "because it's been a while since I've been out there."
Georgia showed it must make progress on offense to realize the dream of becoming the first team to win three straight national championships in The Associated Press poll era. The Bulldogs of the vaunted Southeastern Conference led only 17-0 at halftime against the Skyhawks, who are two-time reigning champs of the Ohio Valley Conference but compete in the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision.
Beck, placed in the difficult position of following Bennett's back-to-back storybook championship seasons at quarterback, gained momentum in the second half. He threw a short completion to his left to Mews, who cut back to the middle of the field, dodged a would-be tackler and used his speed for the first touchdown catch of his career.
It was the longest career completion for Beck, who beat out redshirt sophomore Brock Vandagriff for the starting job. Beck opened Georgia's next possession with a 47-yard completion to C.J. Smith before adding a 25-yarder to Mews.
"We're expecting a lot from Carson, but we won't pressure him," Georgia defensive tackle Nazir Stackhouse said. "We're just going to love him. ... I feel like Carson is going to take us all the way."
Beck, who had a 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, completed 21 of 31 passes for 294 yards with one touchdown.
Vandagriff entered the game late in the third quarter and completed a 56-yard pass to Rara Thomas in the fourth before adding a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Oscar Delp. Another tight end, junior star Brock Bowers, had five catches for 77 yards and scored on a 3-yard run.
Georgia's third quarterback, redshirt freshman Gunner Stockton, led a field-goal drive late in the game.
The Bulldogs' defense, which ranked fifth in the nation last season with its per-game average of 14.3 points allowed, kept UT Martin off the scoreboard until Kindead Dent's 9-yard touchdown pass to Trevonte Rucker in the fourth quarter. Dent, a graduate transfer from Ole Miss, was limited to 128 passing yards.
The defense had the last word, scoring on Kyron Jones' 26-yard interception return with less than two minutes remaining.
UTM coach Jason Simpson said he was disappointed by the final score.
"I hate that it ended up like that," Simpson said. "... Pretty good, 17-0 at halftime, so we were still in the game."
The Skyhawks showed impressive defensive strength in the first half, refusing to allow Georgia's offensive line to establish a consistent push on runs up the middle.
"I feel like this was a great opportunity for the team to see where we're at against the SEC, and now we're going to go and dominate the OVC," Rucker said.
The Bulldogs, who will play their second of four consecutive home games when they face Ball State next Saturday in the first meeting between the schools, took advantage of their depth at wide receiver and running back to deal with injuries on the roster.
Mews played a prominent role on offense and returns as receivers Ladd McConkey (back) and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (undisclosed) were held out. Running back Daijun Edwards, Georgia's leading returning rusher, did not have a carry while recovering from a knee injury, while Kendall Milton (hamstring) started and had nine carries for 53 yards. Freshman running back Roderick Robinson II made it 31-0 with his 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Georgia, which went 15-0 in 2022, extended its winning streak to 18 games. The Bulldogs have won 28 consecutive regular-season games and are 30-1 in their last 31 games.
Tributes in memory
The flag at Dooley Field flew at half-staff and there was a moment of silence before the game in honor of Sonny Seiler, owner of the famed line of 11 "Uga" mascots since the 1950s, who died Monday at age 90. His son, Charles Seiler, and other family members were on the sideline with Uga XI, also known as Boom, who took over the mascot role during the G-Day spring game.
In addition, Georgia left guard Xavier Truss, who normally wears No. 73, instead wore 77 in honor of former Bulldogs offensive lineman Devin Willock, who was killed in a car crash in January, just hours after the celebration of the team's most recent national championship. Police said speeding and racing led to the wreck, which also killed recruiting staff member Chandler LeCroy.
Defensive tackle Jalen Carter, a star for last season's Bulldogs who was a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in April's NFL draft, was charged with reckless driving and racing in connection to the fatal crash.
Truss said offensive linemen will share the 77 jersey this season.
"Whoever is playing hard and showing he deserves it," he said. "It's a pride thing."