ATHENS — On January 13, 2012, 13 draft-eligible juniors, plus quarterbacks Aaron Murray and Hutson Mason, lined up in the front of Georgia’s team meeting room on the first floor of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall and made a declaration. They said they were coming back to play their senior seasons for the Bulldogs in 2012.
The reason they came back will be on full display today at Sanford Stadium. The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (10-1) play host to Georgia Tech (6-5) in the annual battle for the Governor’s Cup and those seniors will attempt to end their college careers 4-0 against the Yellow Jackets. But that’s only a side note in this storyline.
Saturday’s game is essentially a BCS championship quarterfinal for Georgia. If it can win, the Dec. 1 matchup with Alabama in the SEC Championship becomes a national championship play-in game. With No. 1-ranked Notre Dame the only undefeated, bowl-eligible team left in America (the Fighting Irish face USC in Los Angeles Saturday night) and the SEC Championship participants ranked 2 and 3, the SEC is virtually assured of having a team in the title game for a seventh consecutive year. An SEC team has won the last six.
Georgia believes it is its turn to wear that crown. And that shot is why those seniors – 21 in all – are going to walk through a gauntlet of teammates per the Bulldogs’ tradition before the final home game of the year.
“I am very impressed with this senior bunch,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “They really wanted to take some ownership of this team. Once they all decided they were going to stick around, everybody who checked out the NFL and where they might be drafted and all that kind of stuff, once they all decided they wanted to stay, I think it created energy immediately… .
“And because they decided to stay, they wanted it to be a special season. They didn’t want it to just be a year where we came up short.”
Nothing could be more ruinous to Georgia’s goals than to lose to Georgia Tech. Despite their pedestrian record, the Yellow Jackets come into Saturday’s game on an uptick. They have won four of their last five games, are averaging 47.6 points over the last three and just got word they’ll represent the Coastal Division in next week’s ACC Championship game.
And, of course, Tech would like nothing better than to the derail the Bulldogs’ BCS hopes in the regular-season finale. It would be perfect payback for what Georgia did to the Yellow Jackets in 2009. The Bulldogs knocked off a No. 7-ranked, 10-1 Tech team 30-24 the week before its ACC title-game appearance.
That’s why any notion that the Bulldogs are in danger of overlooking the Tech game borders on the ludicrous. Georgia’s seniors made sure early in the week the Bulldogs’ underclassmen fully understood depth and scope not just of the situation.
“I told (freshman tailback) Todd Gurley, ‘man, if you remember how bad we felt after losing to South Carolina this year, you’ll feel 10 times worse losing to these guys,’” senior flanker Tavarres King said. “… I was like, ‘we lose this weekend, you’re going to hate these guys even more.’”
Said senior safety Shawn Williams: “I feel like everything we want to accomplish is still there. We’ve just got out and take it one game at a time. We can’t overlook anybody. We’re just having a one-game season right now. That’s how we’ve got to look at it.”
The Yellow Jackets bring in a bigger, stronger and faster version of the spread-option offense that Georgia Southern used to gash the Bulldogs for 302 yards rushing this past Saturday. Meanwhile, Georgia’s offense is on pace to set school records for points (currently 37.6 ppg) and yards (471.4 per game). Quarterback Aaron Murray (2,986 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs) leads the nation in pass efficiency and freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have combined for 1,695 yards and 19 touchdowns, giving the Bulldogs most potent and balanced attacks in the country.
The dynamics of the on-field matchup coupled with the ramifications of the outcome should make for intriguing television for ESPN’s national broadcast. The Bulldogs’ seniors are determined to write the ending they envisioned more than 10 months ago.
“All I know is, if we handle our business we’ll be where we want to be,” senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “To be in this situation and to hold our destiny in our hands is what we wanted.”
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