8:27 PM ET
Mark SchlabachESPN Senior Writer
- Senior college football writer
- Author of seven books on college football
- Graduate of the University of Georgia
ATLANTA — Defending national champion Georgia might have lost 15 players to the NFL draft, but the No. 3 Bulldogs looked just fine in the first game of their title defense, blasting No. 11 Oregon 49-3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday.
Even after losing five defensive players in the first round, including No. 1 pick Travon Walker, Georgia’s defense was too fast and physical for the Ducks.
After having lost the most players ever drafted from one school in NFL draft history, Georgia looked like it will still be back in the hunt for a CFP berth for the third time in coach Kirby Smart’s seven seasons.
But Smart knows his young team still has a long way to go to get back there, even after its lopsided victory in the opener.
“Expectations are definitely already in check,” Smart said. “You don’t have to worry about that.”
Georgia’s offense, which played second fiddle to its record-setting defense last season, was much more explosive against the Ducks. Quarterback Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on who led the Bulldogs to their first national title in 41 years, completed 25 of 31 passes for a career-high 368 yards with two touchdowns.
With 21 seconds left in the first half, Bennett spun away from four Oregon defenders and somehow saw Ladd McConkey, who was wide open in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown that gave Georgia a 28-3 lead at the half.
After starting last season as Georgia’s No. 3 quarterback and being thrust into the lineup only after JT Daniels was injured, Bennett is the undisputed starter this year.
“I don’t think Stetson really gets affected by anything I do, you do or anybody does,” Smart said. “Stetson lives in his own world, and he does a really good job of blocking out all the noise. The guy had a flip phone, OK, in 2021. He doesn’t really get into all that.
“I think that’s what his kind of edge is, and he made some plays that he didn’t make the right decisions on today, and he knows those. He knows his mistakes. He’s got to be smart. He does things that maybe we don’t ask him to do. But he did make some plays with his feet, and I think you take the good, and I’m not going to call it bad, but you take the good with his poor decisions.”
Georgia scored touchdowns on each of its first seven possessions, converted its first nine third-down plays and went 6-for-6 in the red zone. The Bulldogs didn’t punt until early in the fourth quarter, when freshman Brett Thorson boomed a 53-yarder.
The Ducks couldn’t muster much of anything against Georgia’s rebuilt defense. Oregon had 313 yards of offense, averaging 4.6 yards per play compared to the Bulldogs’ 9.2. Georgia had two interceptions and stopped the Ducks on a goal-line stand at the 3-yard line with 1:22 left to play.
“We don’t want to be the hunted,” said safety Christopher Smith, who had one of Georgia’s two interceptions. “We want to hunt.”
Oregon was playing its first game under new coach Dan Lanning, who was the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator in 2021. It was a disappointing debut for Lanning, who is a first-time head coach.
“He’s going to do a really good job at Oregon,” Smart said. “He’s relentless. They’ll bounce back from this and he knows we have better players. He’ll never say that, but he knows we’ve got better players.”