ATLANTA (AP) — Stetson Bennett and the Georgia defense picked up where they left off in last year’s national championship game, even with a bunch of their former teammates now playing in the NFL.
Bennett threw for 368 yards and accounted for three touchdowns, a revamped defense didn't miss a beat, and the No. 3 Bulldogs looked very much like a champion intent on repeating with a 49-3 rout of No. 11 Oregon on Saturday.
Bennett completed 25-of-31 passes with two touchdowns and ran for another score in the season opener before calling it a day in the third quarter. By that point, Georgia led 42-3 and had thoroughly ruined the debut of Oregon coach Dan Lanning.
Georgia really opened it up on offense, throwing 37 times for 439 yards.
“I think when you watch what they did today, if you're watching from home, you're saying, ‘Man, I’d love to come play in that offense,'" coach Kirby Smart said.
After spending the last three years as Georgia's co-defensive coordinator, Lanning got a look at his former team from the opposing sideline in a game played before a predominantly red-clad crowd at the home of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
He saw just how far the Ducks have to go.
“That locker room is hurting a little bit,” Lanning said. “But they’re ready to grow.”
Bennett, the former walk-on who led a storybook run to Georgia's first national title since 1980, returned for a sixth college season with a firm grip on the starting job after battling for playing time most of his career.
Bennett was the offensive MVP of both Georgia victories in last year's College Football Playoff.
He started his final season with a career high for passing yards.
“It's always good to go in being the guy," Bennett said. “It was pretty cool.”
He guided the Bulldogs to the end zone on all six possessions he played. He ran for a 1-yard score and tossed TD passes of 4 yards to Ladd McConkey — spinning away from a pass rusher who appeared to have him corralled — and 18 yards to Adonai Mitchell.
There were some questions about the Georgia defense, which had five players off the 2021 unit selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Any doubts were quickly put to rest by a swarming group that looked very much like last year's defense for the ages, making life miserable for new Oregon quarterback Bo Nix.
“One of our mottos is, ‘No one in our end zone,'" said Christopher Smith, who had one of Georgia's two interceptions.
Nix transferred to Eugene after starting at Auburn the last three seasons. He immediately found himself facing a team he lost to three times while playing in the SEC.
Make it 0-4.
Nix's frustration was evident when he buried his helmet in his hands after a false-start penalty.
Georgia's day was epitomized by a short pass to Darnell Washington that turned into a big gain when the 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end shrugged off one defender hitting him high and hurdled another who tried to bring him down low.
QUITE A DEBUT
Freshman Malaki Starks looks like one of the new stars of the Georgia defense.
He made a brilliant interception while falling backward at the Georgia 8 and wound up leading the team with eight tackles.
NIX IN GREEN
Despite his poor showing, Nix has a solid grasp on the Oregon quarterback job.
Nix completed 21 of 37 for just 173 yards, and his second interception — the one picked off by Smith — was an especially poor decision.
“He forced a throw he didn't need to force,” Lanning said. “Bo knows that.”
Even though he didn't name a stating quarterback leading up to the game, Lanning never considered giving someone else a shot.
Nix is still No. 1 on the depth chart.
“He's our quarterback," Lanning said. "He did a a good job handling some adverse situations. Now he's got to figure out how he can improve.”
Oregon: Lanning clearly has a lot of work to do to bring the Ducks up to a truly elite level. While there's no shame in losing to a team such as Georgia, Oregon expected to be much more competitive in their new coach's first game.
Georgia: The Bulldogs are off and rolling in defense of their national championship. They weren't threatened at all by perhaps the toughest team on their schedule until a Nov. 19 game at Kentucky.
The Bulldogs are more than worthy of their No. 3 ranking. Smart has built a program that reloads rather than rebuilds.
Oregon is sure to tumble in The Associated Press poll. But at least every game from here on out looks much easier than facing the Bulldogs.
Oregon: Home opener next Saturday against FCS school Eastern Washington.
Georgia: While this seemed like a home game for Georgia, its actual home opener is next Saturday against FCS opponent Sanford.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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