LEXINGTON, Ky. – Georgia coach Mark Richt grabbed a microphone and stepped on a stage at UGA’s Legion Field on Thursday night and declared himself a Florida Gators fan.
“Believe it or not, I am cheering for the Gators this weekend,” Richt told a thousand or so Georgia students and fans gathered there to hear a Jason Aldean concert. “We need them to beat South Carolina to get us back in the driver’s seat.”
Losing a game in the SEC certainly makes for strange bedfellows.
The Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1 SEC) were unceremoniously dispatched by South Carolina 35-7 in Columbia, S.C., on Oct. 6. But during Georgia’s bye last weekend, the Gamecocks lost at LSU.
That means a loss by South Carolina (6-1, 4-1) to No. 2 Florida (6-0, 5-0) on Saturday — coupled by a Georgia win over Kentucky — will set up what essentially will be an SEC Eastern Division elimination game for the Bulldogs against the Gators next week in Jacksonville. A Georgia win in that game would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker over Florida. A loss, and the Gators almost certainly will roll on to the Dome.
But, of course, first things first. And the timing of events Saturday will be interesting.
Florida and South Carolina kick off in Gainesville, Fla., approximately three hours and 15 minutes before Georgia does the same against Kentucky. That means the Bulldogs could know the outcome of that game about the time they take the field at Commonwealth Stadium.
That could be a good thing or a bad thing.
“We know we’ve got to focus on our business or it won’t mean anything,” Richt said. “So I’m not worried much about it. I don’t want to sit there and have that game become a distraction in any way to our preparation for our game. But I don’t think we’ll be able to stop anybody from knowing what happened in the ballgame.
“I’m not expecting that we can keep it some kind of secret or even that I want to keep it a secret.”
In the digital age of social media, it’d probably be impossible anyway. The good news for the 11th-ranked Bulldogs is Kentucky (1-6, 0-4) is a team against which they can afford to be slightly distracted. After last week’s 49-7 loss at Arkansas, the Wildcats’ average SEC margin of defeat is 28.5 points. That happens to be the approximate line by which Georgia is favored in Saturday’s game.
There have been many contributing factors for Kentucky’s demise. It has lost two quarterbacks, two tailbacks and two safeties to injuries. Jalen Whitlow, a freshman who started out as a wide receiver, will get his third start at quarterback for the Wildcats Saturday. Nevertheless, coach Joker Phillips said, hope is alive.
“They’re excited to go out and play,” said Phillips, who had 42 freshmen and sophomores among the 68 players he took to Arkansas. “They don’t think about it. They’re getting an opportunity to play, and a lot of them are getting an opportunity to start, so I don’t sense a hopeless feeling.”
Georgia emerged from its undressing at South Carolina similarly positive. Because of last year’s experience — they won 10 in a row to overcome an 0-2 start and reach the SEC Championship game — they were espousing hopeful optimism following the off week.
“It definitely stinks that we’re not in the driver’s seat right now,” said quarterback Aaron Murray, who’s coming off an 11-for-31, 109-yard passing performance against the Gamecocks. “But we just have to do our thing. We have to make sure we win the remainder of our games because if we lose even one more, there’s no shot of making it to Atlanta.”
Said cornerback Sanders Commings: “The goal is still to win the national championship. We’ve got to have a little help around the league and around college football, but it’s still definitely the goal for us.”
All of that will be out the window if Georgia loses to Kentucky, which has beaten the Bulldogs twice since 2006 and traditionally plays them tough in Lexington. And it could be all for naught if the Gators don’t handle South Carolina.
But rather than hide from that reality, Richt has embraced it. He even wore a red shirt with orange stripes on Monday to underscore his pro-Florida sentiment this week. And while there won’t be a television in the Bulldogs’ locker room at Commonwealth Stadium, Richt said he’ll make no attempt to barricade the information superhighway.
“First of all, I don’t think there’s any way you can keep anybody from finding out what’s going on in the world of college football,” he said. “Even if I tried to say, ‘I don’t want anybody to say anything about that game; I don’t want to hear anything,’ you might get on the bus and the bus driver says something. Everybody’s going to be watching that game.
“The reality of that situation is South Carolina will have three more SEC games to play after that game and we have four more games. So, again, we know we have to focus on our business.”
MORE ON GEORGIA FOOTBALL