The hype leading up to the SEC Championship clash may have focused on the star senior running backs, but like any good linebacker, Georgia's Roquan Smith quickly put a stop to it once the game began.
The explosive junior already atop NFLDraftScout.com's 2019 ILB rankings earned MVP honors Saturday with 13 tackles (including 10 solos), two tackles for loss, a sack and two fumble recoveries as the Bulldogs avenged their only loss of the season, defeating Auburn 28-7 and all but guaranteeing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The 6-foot, 225-pound Smith was seemingly everywhere in this game, delivering game-changing plays at critical moments and showcasing the instincts, sideline-to-sideline speed and explosive hitting ability that have earned him selections on each of NFLDraftScout.com's early first-round mock drafts and a comparison by a longtime trusted talent evaluator to one of the game's all-time great linebackers.
A perfect example of Smith's recognition and speed were demonstrated early on when he erased a potential touchdown early in the game for Auburn by beating its Heisman candidate Kerryon Johnson to the perimeter and dropping the running back for a loss of one. Shortly thereafter, Smith showed his versatility, getting home on a third-down blitz up the middle to sack Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Smith also provided the game's biggest hit, racing to the sideline to deliver a bone-crunching hit on Tigers' 6-2, 190-pound sophomore wide receiver Darius Slayton, providing emphatic evidence that he possesses plenty of physicality to handle the rigors of the NFL despite lacking prototypical size for the position.
Smith's stellar play drew raves on social media with Senior Bowl chief executive Phil Savage sharing via Twitter that the Georgia linebacker "reminds me of Ray Lewis," adding that the defender is a "quick, explosive, instinctive and passionate, big-time player."
After the game, Savage was contacted and confirmed the comparison to Lewis with NFLDraftScout.com. On Nov. 22, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced that Lewis was one of 27 semifinalists for induction in 2018.
Comparing anyone to Lewis is obviously a bold statement, but given the speed, ferocity and passion with which Smith -- named a finalist last week for the Butkus and Bednarik Awards -- has played with this season, it is valid, especially by Savage, who was a scout with the Baltimore Ravens when the club drafted him No. 26 overall back in 1996.
Like Lewis in his heyday, Smith's diagnosis and speed to the sideline made things difficult on Auburn to mount any kind of consistency on offense. After beginning the game with a 10-play touchdown drive, Auburn failed to score on its next nine possessions, losing the ball twice on fumbles, as well as a blocked field goal attempt and on downs.
A big reason for Auburn's struggles was that Johnson, who entered the game with 1,276 yards and 17 touchdowns on the season, was clearly banged up, favoring his right shoulder. After rushing for 167 yards on a season-high 32 carries in Auburn's 40-17 taming of the Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare November 11, Johnson was held to just 44 yards on 13 carries.
While Johnson was held in check for Auburn, Georgia's talented stable of backs were running wild, outgaining the Tigers 238 to 114 yards on the ground.
On the strength of an SEC championship game-record 64-yard touchdown jaunt that essentially sealed the game, freshman D'Andre Swift gave Georgia coach Kirby Smart reason to feel confident that his team is in terrific shape at the position even after senior stars Nick Chubb and Sony Michel -- the best 1-2 punch in the country -- leave for the NFL.
Though Chubb was overshadowed slightly by Swift's big run and Smith's terrific performance, he lived up to the pregame hype, passing former Kevin Faulk (LSU) and Darren McFadden to rank second only to the legendary Herschel Walker on the SEC's career rushing list, gaining 77 yards on 13 carries to give him 4,591 yards with the possibility of two more games remaining.
The news was not all good for the Bulldogs, however, as the 5-11, 215 pound Michel was sidelined in the second half with a left knee injury.
Assuming a clean bill of health, both backs are viewed as potential top 64 draft picks, according to scouts, with the 5-10, 235-pound Chubb topping NFLDraftScout.com's 2018 running back rankings