ATLANTA (AP) — With all sorts of turmoil behind them in the rankings, the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs left no doubt about the top team heading into the College Football Playoff, dismantling No. 11 LSU 50-30 in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday.
Stetson Bennett's threw a season-high four touchdown passes in another stellar postseason performance, while Christopher Smith gave the Bulldogs an early spark with a heads-up play that turned a seemingly harmless blocked field goal into a 96-yard TD.
Not that any fortuitous breaks were needed, but Georgia (13-0, No. 1 CFP) caught a big one when a deflected pass bounced off an LSU receiver's helmet and wound up being picked off by the Bulldogs, setting up a score that contributed to a 35-10 lead by halftime.
LSU's hopes of denying the reigning national champs their first SEC title since 2017 were further dampened by quarterback Jayden Daniels re-injuring a sore right ankle late in the first half. Not that backup Garrett Nussmeier played poorly, guiding the Tigers (9-4, No. 14 CFP) to three second-half touchdowns.
It wasn't nearly enough.
Georgia heads into the playoff assured of a return trip to Atlanta for a de facto semifinal home game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, just 75 miles from its Athens campus. The Bulldogs have already played twice this season at the futuristic stadium, routing Oregon in the season opener and cruising past the the Tigers before a predominantly red-and-black crowd.
LSU's outside hopes of crashing the four-team playoff field were wiped out a week ago by a stunning loss at Texas A&M, one of several upsets that will give the selection committee plenty to think about before its announcement Sunday.
Tennessee and Clemson also ruined their playoff hopes with losses late in the regular season, while No. 4 Southern California is presumably out after getting blown out by Utah in the Pac-12 title game Friday.
Just as the SEC game was kicking off, No. 3 TCU lost to Kansas State in overtime for the Big 12 championship, further clouding a playoff picture that suddenly looks much more favorable for No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Alabama.
No matter who makes the elite field, Georgia is firmly focused on becoming the first repeat national title since Alabama in 2011-12, having won all but one game this season by double-digit margins.
The Bulldogs showed they are more than just a bunch of talented athletes — this is a smart, well-coached group.
Late in the first quarter, LSU's 32-yard field goal attempt was swatted away by Nazir Stackhouse bursting through the middle of the line. The ball rolled to a stop at the Georgia 4 with Smith hovering over it, surveying the field.
As the dejected Tigers headed toward their sideline, thinking the play was over, Smith suddenly scooped up the ball and took odd the other way. With a convoy of about a half-dozen teammates and not an LSU player in sight, Smith sprinted all the way to the end zone to give Georgia a 7-0 lead.
After LSU quickly tied it up on Daniels' 53-yard touchdown pass to Kayshon Boutte, Bennett took control.
The sixth-year senior, a former walk-on who was offensive MVP of both Georgia playoffs wins a year ago, struck for four TD passes in a less than 15-minute span: 3 yards to Brock Bowers, 22 yards to Ladd McConkey, 14 yards to Darnell Washington and 3 yards to Dillon Bell.
Just like that, Georgia led 35-7.
Smith was in the middle of things again on a pick that set up the scoring play to McConkey.
The safety broke up a pass intended for Jack Bach, the ball bouncing off Bach's helmet before it was kept alive with a tip from Javon Bullard and finally wound up in the hands of Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon.
It was that kind of day for the Bulldogs.
LSU: A promising debut season for coach Brian Kelly has turned a big ugly the last two weeks. The Tigers are on the right track but still have a bit of work to do to catch a powerhouse program like the Bulldogs.
Georgia: Win or lose in the SEC title game, the Bulldogs were seemingly assured of a spot in the playoff. But coach Kirby Smart continues to impress with his ability to keep the team motivated. While there were some defensive lapses in the second half, this game was never in doubt.
While Daniels went down for LSU, Georgia lost a couple of players to injuries in the first half.
McConkey, who landed awkwardly making a catch along the sideline, and right offensive tackle Warren McClendon did not return after halftime.
LSU: The Tigers get their postseason assignment Sunday, with the Citrus Bowl among the possibilities.
Georgia: The only question is who the Bulldogs will meet in the Peach Bowl on New Year's Eve, with TCU, Ohio State and SEC rival Alabama all in the mix.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/mrxhe6f2