Georgia’s Brock Bowers may be the best player in college football — does he play for the best team?

AUBURN, Ala. — As media members went in the tunnel Saturday night, a Georgia fan spotted one: “Your film study will be easy: Just get the ball to Brock Bowers.” A common theme. As another reporter stood outside the locker room, a high-ranking UGA administrator cracked: “Guess your story can just be: ‘Brock Bowers is good.’”

The man himself, resting against a wall outside the locker room, issued a series of nondescript quotes while his teammates and his coach filled in the color. The word “crazy” was used twice, and coach Kirby Smart, asked about a Bowers-for-Heisman debate, at first demurred before volunteering:

“But who can argue that there’s a better football player anywhere in the country? Just football player.”

It’s a strong argument: Bowers may be the best player in college football. But does he play for the best team in college football? That’s become very murky after this smelling salts start by Georgia, which had to rally again on Saturday to beat unranked Auburn 27-20, with Bowers scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 40-yard catch-and-run, capping a 157-yard receiving performance.

Bowers is great. The rest of his team …?

“I don’t know how good a team we’ve got. I really don’t,” Smart said. “I don’t sit here and proclaim that we’ve got some unbelievable team. But I do think our team believes in each other. We connect. We step up when we need to step up.”

Georgia can’t keep doing this, right? It can’t just keep putzing around for two or three quarters, shrug and say, “OK, throw it to Bowers.” That’s not a feasible long-term strategy … uh, right?

Well, this program has won two national championships with Bowers as its leading receiver. He looks to be the most important common denominator between these three teams. The only key players on all three teams are Bowers, center Sedrick Van Pran-Granger and Ladd McConkey, who sure looked important hauling down three third-down catches in his season debut Saturday.

But for all the attention on the big personnel changes this year — Carson Beck replacing Stetson Bennett at quarterback, Mike Bobo replacing Todd Monken as offensive coordinator — another question has emerged: What about Georgia’s defense?

This is three straight games it has looked mortal, and this one may have been the most concerning because of the run defense. Auburn became the first team since LSU in 2018 to run for more than 200 yards against Georgia. The next year Jordan Davis arrived, and over the next four seasons essentially nobody has been able to run on Georgia. Some teams could pass, but they could not run and were forced to be one-dimensional.

Auburn was one-dimensional, but it was the run. And what concerned Smart the most was how it happened. Auburn copied some of what UAB did the previous week, which Georgia coaches figured it would do, and still succeeded. Payton Thorne, who wasn’t supposed to be the mobile quarterback, uncorked a 61-yard run in the first quarter that established this game would be different.

“In the past, we haven’t struggled with that kind of run game,” Smart said. “They hurt us. They copied some things UAB did. And we expected it. That’s what’s disappointing, is when you expect it and don’t stop it. So we’ve gotta help our players, and we’ve gotta get better on defense.”

There were also the turnovers. Beck threw an interception in the first quarter, and Oscar Delp fumbled on the first offensive play of the second half. Auburn scored both of its touchdowns off the ensuing short fields but also managed a few long drives that either ended in field goals or Hugh Freeze’s strange decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 12 late in the first half. Georgia’s defenders did snuff that one out.

Stops when needed.

“We know we’re not where we need to be right now, and we can always improve,” Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon said. “But I feel like our team showed great resiliency, and I’m proud that we fought all the way through the fourth quarter.”

Put another way: They kept the game in reach for Bowers to do his thing.

“That man is crazy,” McConkey said. “Every time he gets the ball in his hands you’re like, ‘Oh what’s about to happen, what’s about to happen?’ Because it’s something special every single time.”

OK, maybe not every single time, but close. Bowers had catches of 40, 28, 16 and 40 yards — in the fourth quarter alone. (He had a 15-yarder called back because of a penalty.) He also converted a third-and-short when he lined up in the backfield and took the carry. The stat sheet credited Bowers with 79 yards after the catch, a very believable number for anyone who watched him work downfield.

“He’s just a really good football player. Even on some of his catches, he’s not open. He’s just making the play,” McConkey said.

“There’s a lot of guys we have that are like that,” Beck said, adding, “but especially if he’s on a linebacker in a body like that, that’s not really a cover guy, we would consider that a mismatch.”

Beck was told it seems that when the team gets in a pinch, it just says: “Uh oh, get it to Brock.”

“It’s definitely not as simple as that,” Beck said. “But just based off of what they were presenting on defense, and the concepts we were running, it kept getting him open. There was a few that we still missed to him. But he obviously still had a huge game.”

To be completely fair, it wasn’t just Bowers. Beck recovered from the interception and slow start (again) to throw for 313 yards. He made some very good throws in big spots; Georgia was 8-for-13 on third downs. And Beck led two long scoring drives: 98 yards in the third quarter to tie it and 75 yards in the fourth quarter to win the game.

And while the turnovers were bad — and the defense didn’t force one until the final drive — Georgia did get more explosive plays: four rushes of more than 12 yards and eight passes of more than 16 yards. So a total of 12, four more than Auburn.

“Because explosives are a greater indicator than turnovers,” said Smart, who then referenced last week’s story in The Athletic about explosive play margin.

“We can definitely play better football,” McConkey said. “But I think we showed grit tonight. We showed resiliency. We went out there and just got the job done.”

But, to return to the main point, can this keep working? More trouble might be on the way next week when unbeaten Kentucky comes in after racking up more than 300 rushing yards against Florida on Saturday. Georgia hasn’t lost to Kentucky since 2009 and tends to do well because it plays the same style but has more talent. But those run defense numbers for Georgia have to be concerning.

That’s a worry for next week, and beyond. On Saturday night, though, Smart got emotional. He tossed his visor into the stands. Maybe this isn’t the Auburn of 2010 or 2013 or 2017, but it was an Auburn team that had Georgia in trouble. And it was a tough road environment.

And for all its warts, Georgia is still unbeaten.

“The leadership on the team has shown through twice,” Smart said. “You don’t know how many times you’re going to be able to do that when you turn the ball over and give people extra possessions. You just can’t do that. Good football teams don’t do that, and good football teams don’t let people run the ball on them for 200 yards.”

The clock, indeed, may be ticking on this Georgia team’s unbeaten mark, and its three-peat hopes. It can’t just keep waiting for Bowers to bail it out.

Right? … Right?

(Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

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