MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — With one overwhelming half at the Orange Bowl, No. 3 Georgia showed that a humbling loss to Alabama did not break the Bulldogs.
In fact, it might have made them even stronger.
Stetson Bennett threw three touchdown passes, Nakobe Dean led an angry defense and Georgia returned to its dominant ways, beating No. 2 Michigan 34-11 on Friday night to advance to the College Football Playoff championship.
“Answered a million questions about our team, bouncing back and how you played,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "We’ve got a lot of high-character guys on this team and they played their tail off today.”
Georgia (13-1) earned a rematch with Southeastern Conference nemesis Alabama (13-1) in the title game Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.
It was 27 days ago the Crimson Tide rolled through the Bulldogs, shattering their air of invincibility after a 12-0 regular season in which they were hardly challenged.
“All our guys did was work,” Smart said about how they responded to the loss and three weeks of being asked what went wrong.
The Bulldogs quickly answered any questions about whether the damage from that 41-24 setback would linger.
Georgia became the first team in the eight-year history of the CFP to score on each of its first five possessions and led 27-3 at halftime.
“We knew we were better than what we showed that last game,” Bennett said.
Michigan (12-2) entered its first playoff appearance off a milestone season, having ended a long drought against rival Ohio State on the way to winning the Big Ten.
“Let'er rip,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told ESPN moments before kickoff.
The Bulldogs most certainly did, playing like a team out to prove a point.
Georgia scored touchdowns the first two times it had the ball, moving it at will against Heisman Trophy runner-up Aidan Hutchinson and the Michigan defense.
Bennett found freshman tight end Brock Bowers for an 8-yard touchdown pass to cap an 80-yard opening drive.
"That set the tone for the game,” Smart said.
Georgia grabbed a two-touchdown lead, hitting Michigan with some of the trickery the Wolverines have used so well. Tailback Kenny McIntosh swept to the right and let loose a perfect pass to Adonai Mitchell for an 18-yard TD that made it 14-0 less than five minutes into the game.
The Wolverines had rolled to their first Big Ten championship since 2004 without trailing by as many as seven points this season.
“I mean, we gave everything we got, and we got beat tonight,” quarterback Cade McNamara said. “But I think once we give it a little time, we’ll be able to appreciate a lot of the great things we were able to accomplish this season."
The Bulldogs tacked on field goals on their next two possessions and Bennett connected on a 57-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Burton streaking down the sideline to make it 27-3 with 1:38 left in the half.
And that was was pretty much that. The Bulldogs outgained the Wolverines 330-101 in the first 30 minutes.
“I thought our (defensive) front controlled the line of scrimmage. I thought our offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage,” Smart said. “That’s a total team effort.”
The Georgia defense that was setting an historic pace, allowing less than a touchdown per game before getting shredded by Alabama, smothered a Michigan offense built to bully opponents.
The Bulldogs were having none of that.
Dean, the Butkus Award-winning linebacker, diagnosed plays before the snap and chased down ball carriers from sideline to sideline.
Dean said he made note of how heading into this game, for the first time all season, Georgia's defensive dominance seemed to be in doubt.
“We always want to play with a chip on our shoulder,” said Dean, who had seven tackles, two for losses, and a forced a fumble.
Massive nose tackle Jordan Davis collapsed the middle of a Michigan offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award as the best in the country.
“That was our plan going in, being a physical, more dominant front,” the All-American Davis said.
Cornerback Derion Kendrick, a transfer for Clemson, had two interceptions and was the defensive player of the game.
The Wolverines finished with 88 yards rushing after coming in averaging 223 per game. McNamara was 11 for 19 for 106 yards passing.
Simply, it was no contest and now the Bulldogs will get a shot at redemption against Alabama, trying to win their first national title since 1980.
All that stands in the way is the most accomplished dynasty in the history of college football, and the rival Smart, a longtime Nick Saban assistant at Alabama, has tried to model his program after.
Smart dodged the celebratory Gatorade bath from his players after the game, Smart said he wanted to get a real shower and get to work on catching the team Georgia has been chasing for five years.
"(Alabama) got a five, six-hour head start," Smart said. “To be honest with you guys, I’m not interested in celebrating that.”
Georgia opened as 2 1/2-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Georgia: There was plenty of talk about whether Bennett should remain the Bulldogs' starting quarterback after he threw two interceptions against Alabama. Georgia fans wondered if it was time to make the switch back to USC transfer JT Daniels, who was QB1 to start the season before an injury opened the door for Bennett.
The former walk-on completed his first nine passes against Michigan on the way to 307 yards and showed more than enough arm strength on a 53-yard bomb to James Cook in the second quarter. Bennett was named offensive MVP.
Michigan: The 2021 season will provide plenty for the Wolverines to look back upon fondly.
“This is the start,” Harbaugh told ESPN afterward. “In Michigan history, it is one of the best teams ever.”
The Orange Bowl showed that closing the gap on Ohio State is one thing, but there are two teams currently at the top of college football in an entirely different class as the rest.
Georgia: The Bulldogs will face Alabama for the second time in the CFP title game. The Bulldogs have lost seven straight overall meetings against the Tide, including the 2017 CFP championship in overtime.
Michigan: The Wolverines open the 2022 season at home against Colorado State.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com
More 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://apnews.com/cfbtop25
Ralph D. Russo, The Associated Press