ATHENS — For the Missouri game, it was an opposing player’s accusation that Georgia plays “old man football.” For Vanderbilt, it was replaying the postgame antics of the Commodores’ coach from the year before. For Florida last week, it was Shawn Williams’ accusations that Georgia’s defense was soft and playing without passion.
In the Bulldogs’ three most impressive outings of the season, some sort of external motivation inspired the Bulldogs to a higher level of play. But what about this week, when Georgia plays host to an average Ole Miss team on homecoming? What about next week when the Bulldogs travel to Auburn to play a team that hasn’t won an SEC game?
No. 6-ranked Georgia will have only one place to go for motivation for those games — winning the SEC Eastern Division title and returning to the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. The Bulldogs believe that should be enough.
“Man, we know what we’ve got at stake,” senior noseguard John Jenkins said. “We know what’s at the end of the tunnel. I know Ole Miss is a good ballclub; I considered them during my recruiting process. We know how big this game is. Each game we come across now is that much bigger.”
The Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1 SEC) are coming off a 17-9 win over then-No. 2-ranked Florida. They needed a heroic play by Jarvis Jones in the final minutes to secure the victory but it was otherwise a dominating effort.
Georgia held the Gators to just 266 yards total offense and forced six turnovers. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs got their running game back on track. Freshman tailback Todd Gurley had 118 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
“I definitely think we’re capable of playing with that kind of intensity and that kind of emotion every week,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Right now it’s exciting. We’re back in the lead in the East. We have a chance to play in Atlanta. That Florida game means nothing if we don’t win these next two so I know our guys are going to be geeked up, excited and ready to go.”
Georgia will need to be ready because it will be facing an upstart Ole Miss team that believes in first-year coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels (5-3, 2-2 SEC) are coming off a 30-27 win over Arkansas in Little Rock this past weekend. It was the team’s second SEC win in a row after losing 16 straight going back to last season under Houston Nutt.
“I think we’ve got our hands full,” said Freeze, who came to Ole Miss from Arkansas State but is probably best known for being Michael Oher’s high school coach at Briarcrest Christian Academy. “I think (the Bulldogs are) playing their best football, and they’re probably as confident as they’ve ever been. To go their place with our limited number of scholarship kids and the lack of depth we have at places, it’s a tall task. But we’ve been that way in most games we’ve played. Our kids are going to compete, I know that, and I think we need a few breaks here and there. We’ve got to play probably a near-perfect game to go in and pull it off.”
The Rebels have lost 11 straight to ranked opponents. However, they gave No. 1 Alabama its best game to date before losing 33-14.
Expect an extremely motivated Ole Miss team. It features seven starters from the state of Georgia, including linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, a redshirt freshman from Grayson who felt spurned by the Bulldogs. Nkemdiche’s younger brother Robert, a defensive lineman, is rated the No. 1 overall prospect in America and will also be at the game.
“The excitement is unreal,” said Denzel, who leads the Rebels in tackles, forced fumbles and interceptions. “This is like a homecoming for me and I just can’t explain how excited I am to play between the hedges. I’m going to have so many friends and family there. This game is extremely personal.”
So the Bulldogs can be sure their opponent will be motivated. What can they do to ensure that they are as well?
“I don’t know what they’re going to do this week,” coach Mark Richt said of his team. “I hope they play like they did (against Florida). I hope we continue to get after it with that kind of emotion and heartbeat.”
Senior linebacker Christian Robinson assures that Georgia will.
“We use the analogy of a train,” Robinson said. “It takes a lot of momentum to get it going but, once it’s going full speed, it’s hard to slow it down. If you try to get in its way it’s going to run right through you. So we’re hoping we continue to pick up speed and hopefully we’re going at a rate now where no one can slow us down.”