AUBURN, Ala. – The Dogs are back in the Dome. But that’s not the end-goal this time around.
With a resounding 38-0 win over Auburn Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium, No. 5-ranked Georgia clinched a berth in the SEC Championship game for a second year in a row.
The Bulldogs (9-1, 7-1 SEC) closed out the conference season tied with Florida (9-1, 7-1) as SEC Eastern Division champions. But they will represent the East in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 1 based on their 17-9 win over the Gators on Oct. 27. South Carolina (8-2, 6-2), which beat Georgia 35-7 on Oct. 6, finishes third in the East.
“This feels great,” senior safety Bacarri Rambo said. “This is what all the seniors and everybody that stayed out of the NFL came back for. We still haven’t finished. This is just a ticket to the Dome. Now we’ve got to go there and handle business.”
Said sophomore wideout Malcolm Mitchell: “This is everything we worked for. But, then again, we’ve got to remember getting there is not enough. We’ve got to win it. So we’ve still got a lot prepare for.”
Georgia lost to LSU 42-10 after leading 10-0 in the SEC title game last year. Coach Mark Richt was asked if he thought the Bulldogs might have a better shot this time around.
“We’ll just see,” he said. “I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen. I’ll just say we want to play better this time. Atlanta is not the end of the road, we hope.”
The Bulldogs will play Alabama in the SEC title game if the Crimson Tide can beat Auburn on Nov. 24. No. 1-ranked Bama (9-1, 6-1) was upset by No. 15 Texas A&M Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It will be the fifth time Georgia has played in the SEC Championship game since Mark Richt became its coach in 2001. The Bulldogs also won the SEC championship in 2005 and played in the title game in 2003 and 2011. The Bulldogs had never played in the title game before Richt’s arrival.
Richt said the Bulldogs “didn’t get caught up in” what was happening up the road in Tuscaloosa.
“We’re just very thankful to have the opportunity to go back to Atlanta,” Richt said in a room outside Georgia’s victorious locker room. “We’re excited about winning the East, there’s no doubt about that. Be we know there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Georgia clinched this berth the same place it clinched its first one under Richt. It was the 10th anniversary of the game in which quarterback David Greene hit Michael Johnson with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass on fourth-and-14 in 2002. Georgia went on to win the overall SEC title that season.
Saturday was the 12th time the Bulldogs clinched an SEC title against Auburn, which they for the 116th time in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. It was Georgia’s sixth win in the last seven games in the series and ties it overall at 54-54-8.
“We’re not satisfied,” senior wide receiver Tavarres King said. “We know we’ve got bigger things ahead of us. We’re not going to look past Georgia Southern or Georgia Tech, but we know what lies ahead. We want to win that thing. Last year I think getting there was kind of our destiny. This year it’s win it. We want to be SEC champions and hopefully that’s what will happen.”
Murray quieted the crowd quickly. The Bulldogs’ junior completed his first 10 passes of the game and threw for 186 yards in the first half, with touchdown passes to three different receivers – Chris Conley, Malcolm Mitchell and King (who was wearing the No. 15 jersey of injured teammate Marlon Brown). The Bulldogs scored on their first four possessions of the game on drives of 76, 80, 64 and 90 yards. Including last year’s four-TD passing performance, Murray is 32-of-42 for 432 yards and 7 TDs the last two seasons against Auburn.
Georgia also got 100-yard rushing games and single touchdowns from freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley (11-116) and Keith Marshall (8-105). Marshall had a 62-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
Georgia’s defense did its part. They entered the fourth quarter having allowed just one touchdown and four field goals in the last three games. The Tigers had only 34 yards rushing on 19 carries and 153 total yards when the starters exited the game early in the fourth quarter.
Jarvis Jones added two sacks in the first half, giving him 10.5 on the season, 3.5 short of the school record. Safety Bacarri Rambo had an interception, giving him 15 for his career.
“We’re playing some good ball right now,” Jones said. “We’ve just got to keep doing it every week to be the best.
This year’s clincher was considerably easy for the Bulldogs. They kicked off to open the game, then scored on their first four offensive possessions to build a 28-0 first-half lead. Georgia didn’t punt until there was just 30 seconds remaining in the first half, and only then after tight end Arthur Lynch dropped what would have been a first-down catch.
“We knew we had to come in here and try to get on them early and try to put some points on the board,” said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who had completed 18-of-24 passes for 208 yards and 3 touchdowns when he left the game late in the third quarter” Trying to get their fans out of it was the biggest thing. When you play away games, if you can get the crowd out of the game that’s huge. We were able to do that early and make some big plays.”
The dynamics are decidedly different on The Plains. Just two years after winning a national championship, Auburn’s Gene Chizik is coaching amid multiple reports that he will be dismissed at season’s end.
The discontent is understandable. The Tigers fell to 2-8 for the first time in 60 years and dropped to 0-7 in SEC play, also for the the first time since 1952. The Tigers were 1-7 in league play under Terry Bowden in 1998 and 0-6 in Sonny Barfield’s last season in 1980.
“I don’t entertain those thoughts,” Chizik said of his tenure possibly being over. “I have only one quest . . . and that is getting our seniors ready to play their last game at home and trying to get a win.”
The mood could not have been more different in the visiting locker room. There the Bulldogs were daring to dream about winning the SEC championship three weeks hence. The All-American Jones was asked why he thinks it might be different this time.
“We’ve matured since last year,” he said. “I think we understand the game better. We got that feeling, that taste of the SEC last year. We know we’re capable of beating any team from the West. We’re focused and we’ve got goals. Last year our goal was to make it to the SEC. This year we’re looking past that. We don’t want to just get there. We want to win it.”