It was supposed to be Friday’s prizefight, the College Football Playoff semifinal showdown that might actually stay close.
Then No. 3 Georgia, conspicuously recovered from its nightmare of a Southeastern Conference championship game against Alabama, showed up at the Orange Bowl and made most everyone remember why No. 2 Michigan started the season unranked.
Or maybe it was that the Bulldogs made most everyone remember, after a hiatus of about four weeks, why they were judged the country’s best team for most of the season. Through either lens, the outcome in Miami Gardens, Fla., was indicative of a demolition more than a mere disassembly: 34-11, Georgia.
Now the Bulldogs, pursuing their first national championship since the 1980 season, must again meet their not-so-distant nemesis, Alabama. The championship will be decided, pandemic conditions permitting, on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis, where Alabama will be seeking its second consecutive title. The Crimson Tide, which have won six national championships under Coach Nick Saban since the 2009 season, beat No. 4 Cincinnati, 27-6, in the Cotton Bowl on Friday.
And so the Southeastern Conference will win its fifth national title of the playoff era, which began with the 2014 season. The league last enjoyed such a regal assurance headed into the championship matchup during the 2017 season, when Alabama ultimately edged Georgia in a thrilling overtime duel.
Overtime? Against Georgia? A novel notion for Michigan, which did not reach the end zone until there were less than five minutes to play in Friday’s rout. (Perhaps that is too harsh: After all, Georgia’s Derion Kendrick was standing in the end zone when he intercepted a pass from Cade McNamara early in the third quarter.)
The Bulldogs, though, all but set up a pool cabana there — it was 77 degrees at kickoff — and the offensive outburst marked by 515 yards, 325 of them through the air, was a remarkable achievement since it stood as a rebuke to weeks of grousing and doubting about Stetson Bennett’s status as Georgia’s starting quarterback.
The onslaught started not long after Michigan managed to win the coin toss.
The Wolverines kicked off to Georgia, and the Bulldogs started the game’s inaugural possession from their own 20. The first play, a 9-yard dash by Zamir White, seemed promising enough. Then Bennett started throwing.
Adonai Mitchell caught a 16-yard pass. Brock Bowers picked up 35, and then another 7. A pair of White rushes pushed Georgia to first and goal.
Bennett, just more than four minutes into the game, quickly tossed the ball toward Bowers, who dashed in for Georgia’s first touchdown. No Wolverine touched him.
On Georgia’s second drive, Bennett completed three passes before a successful handoff to Kenny McIntosh, a junior tailback. McIntosh ran a bit, mostly toward the sideline, before he lifted his right arm and lofted a pass toward the end zone. Mitchell caught the 18-yard throw on the maize-stained “A” in Michigan’s block lettering in the end zone.
It gave Georgia a 14-point lead at the end of the first quarter. The margin was 24 at halftime, the kind of gridiron magic that Michigan seemed able to conjure all season zapped relatively early in the second quarter.
McNamara, a junior with 2,470 passing yards to his name entering Friday’s semifinal, connected with Roman Wilson to gain 42 yards and thrust Michigan to Georgia’s 19.
Nineteen yards, of course, offered 19 yards of potential tripwires to account for. But perhaps Michigan did not count on Nakobe Dean, the nation’s top linebacker, threatening behind the line of scrimmage. After all, Dean had arrived in Florida with 6.5 sacks over the entirety of his three-season career — not even half of Aidan Hutchinson’s tally in this one season.
But Dean stormed ahead and punctured the Michigan offensive line that had so dazzled John Madden just more than a month ago, when the Wolverines picked apart Ohio State. McNamara went to the ground for an 8-yard loss. The Wolverines soon settled for a field goal.
Michigan later replaced McNamara as the scoreless third quarter dragged to an end and deployed J.J. McCarthy, a freshman who had attempted just 42 passes this season.
Georgia, though, had already added a pair of field goals and then, with a 57-yard throw to Jermaine Burton, yet another touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Bennett crashed to the turf after a blue-jerseyed Wolverine plowed into him — but only once the quarterback had hurled yet another touchdown, this one going 39 yards to James Cook, who went to high school not far from Hard Rock Stadium and is the younger brother of Dalvin Cook, the star Minnesota Vikings running back.
It was only on Nov. 27 that Michigan overwhelmed Ohio State, beating the Buckeyes for the first time in a decade. The next week, the Wolverines pulverized Iowa to win the Big Ten championship and secure their program’s first playoff berth. Theirs was a team that believed it could contend, thanks to players like Hutchinson, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, and Hassan Haskins, a record-breaking running back.
On Friday night, though, Michigan had more miscues than meaningful answers. And Georgia locked down what it craved: another chance at Alabama, this time with a whole season’s fate in the balance.