ATLANTA — The Auburn Tigers were college football's team of November and entered Saturday's trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a history of lighting up the scoreboard in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Georgia arrived with a different script.
After spotting the Tigers a quick 7-0 lead, the Bulldogs used a suffocating defense to shut Auburn out the rest of the way in a 28-7 victory that will put Georgia in the sport's four-team playoff. Georgia will be the first SEC champion in the playoff not named Alabama, and the Bulldogs (12-1) are the first Eastern Division team to wear the league crown since Florida in 2008.
The Bulldogs will play in one of the two national semifinals, which are being held New Year's Day at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
"That's a tough one," Georgia senior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter said with a smile. "The West Coast sounds great."
Georgia hasn't played in a Rose Bowl since the 1942 season, but that would be its destination should Clemson be No. 1 in the playoff rankings and the Bulldogs either No. 2 or No. 3. Clemson was No. 1 this past week and downed Miami in Saturday night's Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, so it's possible the Tigers will go to New Orleans and that Georgia and Big 12 champion Oklahoma would vie in Pasadena.
The Bulldogs won their first SEC title since 2005 and their 13th overall, pulling them into a tie with Tennessee for second in all-time crowns behind Alabama's 26.
Georgia led 13-7 entering the fourth quarter, but Carter stripped Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson, causing a fumble that Roquan Smith returned 9 yards to the 39 of the Tigers. Four plays later, Jake Fromm passed to Terry Godwin for a 7-yard touchdown and the two-point conversion to make it 21-7.
"They've got a great back in Kerryon," Carter said. "He's a patient runner, and I just knew I had to hold my block. Once I saw him commit to the gap, I tried to get in there and affect the play. I affected it more than I thought."
Smith was named MVP of the game after racking up 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries. The Bulldogs were torched for 488 yards in their 40-17 loss at Auburn on Nov. 11, but they held the Tigers to 259 yards Saturday, including just 184 after the opening possession.
"You can do it for the chump change, but we did it for all the marbles," Smith said when asked about the payback.
Auburn became the first team in college football history to play three teams ranked in the Associated Press top three during the regular season, losing at Clemson in September before drubbing Georgia and Alabama last month. The Tigers (10-3) entered Saturday at No. 2 in the playoff rankings but will end their season in either the Orange, Peach, Cotton or Fiesta bowl.
Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham went 8-for-8 in the first quarter for 60 passing yards, but he was just 8-of-24 for 85 yards the rest of the way.
"We started out and tried to get the ball on the perimeter by throwing some short passes to get some pace going," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "We also tried big-set runs because of the odd front. They did a lot better job this time with the run fits, and we figured they would."
Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2010, when the Tigers set a record for victory margin in an SEC title game with a 56-17 dismantling of South Carolina. Malzahn was in his first year as Auburn's head coach in 2013, when the Tigers set a record for points in a 59-42 win over Missouri.
There have been reports that Arkansas will make a run at Malzahn for its coaching vacancy, and he was asked about that afterward.
"I'm happy at Auburn," he said. "We have great players. I love my players. As I said before this game, we worked extremely hard to get here to this point, and we've got a very good foundation built. I think the best is yet to come."
When asked if Arkansas should even bother coming after him, Malzahn responded, "I'm the head coach at Auburn, and I just said I want to be the head coach at Auburn."
Auburn opened the game with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, the score coming on a 6-yard pass from Stidham to Nate Craig-Myers. The Bulldogs picked up a pair of first downs on their first possession to cross midfield, but the drive stalled when Fromm was sacked twice in a three-play stretch.
The Tigers led 7-0 early in the second quarter and had a third-and-6 at Georgia's 14-yard line, but Bulldogs outside linebacker Davin Bellamy stripped Stidham of the ball, and Smith recovered at the 16. That sudden change in possession ignited Georgia, which used a 16-yard run by Nick Chubb and a 34-yard pass from Fromm to Melcole Hardman to highlight a seven-play, 84-yard drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Fromm to tight end Isaac Nauta.
"I knew we needed a big play," Bellamy said. "I knew I had a one-on-one with the tackle, and that's the move I've practiced every day for five years. If my team needs a big play, I'm going to try and deliver it."
Said Carter: "Davin's got ice in his veins, and he went out there and balled. Having that guy on the other side of me is really comforting."
Now with the momentum, Georgia forced a three-and-out and then drove for what appeared to be another 2-yard touchdown pass, this one from Fromm to Godwin, but fellow receiver Javon Wims was flagged for offensive pass interference. The Bulldogs were backed up to Auburn's 17-yard line and had to settle for a 27-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal and a 10-7 lead with 4:59 to go before halftime.
Auburn drove to Georgia's 38-yard line in the waning moments of the half, but Smith broke free up the middle to sack Stidham. The Tigers drove to Georgia's 14-yard line with their first possession of the second half but came away empty when Daniel Carlson's 31-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle.
"Our goal today was to come out and compete," second-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "We stressed two words the entire week — composure and physicality. It was a physical, tough game, and we kept our composure for the most part.
"We had some moments in there. Nothing worth having comes easy in this game."
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