ATHENS, Ga. — In a sport rife with traditions and grandstanding and some outright fantasies, there remain some seemingly gospel truths.
Eighth-ranked Arkansas, college football’s darling of the week, learned this one on Saturday during a trip to No. 2 Georgia: In a top-10 matchup, two false-start penalties before the first offensive snap are as perilous as they are foreboding.
But that was how Arkansas opened its afternoon in Athens, where the few Razorback fans who dared surface at Sanford Stadium could have been forgiven if they headed toward Broad Street’s bars not long after kickoff. A matchup that seemed potentially titanic in the late morning had the makings of a rout by early afternoon, as Georgia railroaded, bullied and otherwise embarrassed Arkansas, 37-0.
Georgia’s victory, among the first on a day expected to clarify the chase toward the College Football Playoff’s four slots, moved the Bulldogs to 5-0 and was certain to send the Razorbacks (4-1) tumbling hard and far from their highest ranking in nine years.
The Bulldogs have not won a national championship since their 1980 campaign. So far this season, though, the swagger that erupts from Athens most autumns appears so well-placed that Alabama’s standing as the country’s top team is in clear doubt. The two teams could meet on Dec. 4, when the Southeastern Conference will hold its championship game — which could be less of a play-in game than one that would determine seedings.
Through the season’s first five games, the Georgia defense, one of the nation’s best by one metric after another, has proved as soul-crushingly expert as an Atlanta rush hour at shutting down whatever lane just looked open. The offense, not even the most sterling within the SEC, has driven the Bulldogs’ 142-10 dispatching of their first three opponents in the sport’s premier league.
And while Arkansas is assuredly better than its recent incarnations — 3-7 last season, 2-10 before that and 2-10 before that — the Razorbacks’ performance on Saturday signals that Arkansas is not back to being a power reminiscent of the Frank Broyles era. Indeed, the team’s evisceration on Saturday probably did more to fuel questions about the strength of Texas A&M, a preseason playoff contender that lost by 10 to Arkansas last month, than it did to herald the start of a dynasty, or even something much more modest, in Fayetteville.
Arkansas did, however, win the coin toss.
The Razorbacks deferred until the second half and, after a touchback, invited Stetson Bennett, Georgia’s second-string quarterback, to trot out in the place of JT Daniels, the injured signal caller who had started for the Bulldogs against Clemson, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
The snap came from the 25-yard line. Bennett, who averaged under 7 yards per carry last season, kept the ball and sped toward his right, nearly picking up a first down. The next play brought the next offensive outburst, this time with the arm of a running Bennett: a 16-yard pass to Ladd McConkey, a redshirt freshman who caught it as two Arkansas defenders drew close a step or two too slowly.
When Georgia’s drive at last looked ever so slightly imperiled — the Bulldogs faced third-and-1 — the tailback Zamir White zipped through for a touchdown, his third of the season.
Georgia’s nine-play, 75-yard, shutout-starting drive, which consumed just more than four minutes, soon counted as a relative pleasure for Arkansas.
The Razorbacks, uncomfortably positioned for their offensive debut near the chest-painted fans in the first row of Georgia’s student section, lined up with KJ Jefferson at quarterback. He had shown skill in the season’s first games and become the lone SEC quarterback with at least 800 passing yards and 200 on the ground this season.
But Southern hospitality goes only so far on game day, here or in any other SEC town. Jeers and roars swept through the stadium.
False start. Move back to the 12.
More roars, more jeers. Probably more than a few expletives, too.
False start. Move back to the 7.
Arkansas would ultimately gain two yards before punting to Georgia, which took a little longer that time — 4 minutes, 44 seconds — to score another rushing touchdown.
Whatever hopes Arkansas might have had upon arrival in Athens were dwindling, the Razorbacks already looking destined to be a footnote instead of a fable in the history of the 2021 season.
Whatever last hopes they had ended when, to conclude an Arkansas three-and-out, Dan Jackson, a Georgia free safety, blocked Reid Bauer’s punt. White seized the football in the end zone for yet another Georgia touchdown.
Even in its bog of missteps, Arkansas had moments that approached some kind of fleeting glory. The trouble for the Razorbacks was how spectacularly and routinely squandered they were.
Take the Arkansas drive that began immediately after the blocked punt, with just more than two minutes to play in the opening quarter. The Razorbacks were still standing somewhat upright between Sanford’s famed hedges and steered the ball 55 yards — a tidy sum against the Bulldogs, who had been giving up around 182 yards per game. But that drive, the finest of the early going for Arkansas, included a holding penalty, a self-recovered fumble and, finally, a field-goal attempt that veered rightward.
The rout abated somewhat as the afternoon dragged on. Georgia added 3 points in the second quarter, and another 13 in the second half.
Not that it mattered. The end had been nearly certain from the start.