Georgia goes for state crown before SEC title game

Georgia is headed to the Southeastern Conference championship

game.

Nothing would put a damper on that trip like finishing second in

its own state.

When the 13th-ranked Bulldogs (9-2) face No. 25 Georgia Tech on

Saturday, they’ll be eager to avoid any sort of slip-up in what has

been a comeback of a season. It started with two straight defeats

and plenty of speculation that coach Mark Richt was on the way

out.

Georgia hasn’t lost since.

”We’ve been very concerned about the SEC throughout the season

and trying to stay in the hunt,” tight end Aron White said.

”Luckily, we’ve put ourselves in position to play for the

championship. But we’ve got to win the state championship

first.”

No matter what happens on this quick trip to Atlanta, the

Bulldogs will be making a return trip next weekend to play for

their first conference title since 2005 against No. 1 LSU (12-0).

The Tigers, who routed third-ranked Arkansas 41-17 on Friday, will

be trying to wrap up a spot in the national championship game.

Georgia, meanwhile, hasn’t forgotten what happened to Georgia

Tech two years ago.

The Yellow Jackets (8-3) were in a similar position when they

faced Georgia, having already locked up a spot in the Atlantic

Coast Conference title game. But their big season was left with a

permanent stain when the Bulldogs pulled off a 30-24 upset.

”Even if we win the SEC championship this year but lost to

Tech, I’m sure there would be plenty of people saying, `Ohhhh, but

we still lost to Tech,”’ White said. ”We hate Tech. And Tech

hates us.”

Georgia Tech was eliminated from the ACC race a couple of weeks

ago but still has a shot at a 10-win season. It sure would be sweet

to knock off the Bulldogs along the way, especially with Georgia’s

dominance over the last decade.

The Yellow Jackets have lost nine of the last 10 meetings – and

none of them stung more than that 2009 game.

Time for payback.

”Oh, we would love to,” running back Orwin Smith said. ”Just

the old-fashioned hate. It gets no better than spoiling their

plans. It would be great, something to brag on.”

Georgia Tech hasn’t been able to do much bragging in this

rivalry.

The rare exception came in 2008, when the Yellow Jackets stunned

Georgia between the hedges 45-42, unleashing the triple-option on a

defense that had no idea how to stop it.

Roddy Jones had one of the biggest plays in that game, breaking

a couple of tackles on a 54-yard touchdown run down the sideline

midway through the fourth quarter.

”It was surreal,” said Jones, then a redshirt freshman and now

a senior. ”It all happened so fast. I wasn’t sure I stayed in

bounds. I wasn’t sure if they were going to review it.”

Jones wound up with 214 yards, part of a 409-yard rushing effort

by the Yellow Jackets. Not surprisingly, given Georgia Tech’s lack

of success in the rivalry, he still hears about that balancing act

down the sideline three long years ago.

”People come up and tell me where they were when they saw it,”

he said. ”It’s a very cool feeling. It kind of shows what the

rivalry means to people and it’s very humbling as well to have

people say `that’s my favorite run’ or other things like

that.”

Of course, it would be nice to create some new memories. For

that to happen, the Yellow Jackets will have to run wild against

one of the nation’s toughest defenses.

Georgia ranks second in the NCAA against the run, allowing just

81.3 yards per game. Something will have to give against the Yellow

Jackets, who are second nationally in rushing yards (323.6 a

contest).

”We like the challenge,” linebacker Christian Robinson said.

”It’s the biggest challenge we’ll have from a run game this year,

just knowing they’re going to continue to do what they do no matter

what we throw at `em. That’s their whole motto: just keep doing it,

whether it’s first down, second down, third down, all the way to

fourth down.”

The Bulldogs, led by outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, have held

seven opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground and showed

striking improvement in their second year under defensive

coordinator Todd Grantham. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, has

eclipsed 300 yards rushing five times and been held under 200 yards

only once with its throwback offense, which resembles the wishbone

of the 1970s.

”It’s so hard because you only see it once a year,” said

Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo said. ”There’s so much movement and

once one person messes up, it allows them to make big plays. So

we’ve just got to go out there, do our jobs and continue to hustle

to the ball.”

Georgia Tech’s defense isn’t nearly as imposing, giving up more

than 30 points each of the last two games. The Yellow Jackets have

struggled to slow Georgia on the ground in recent meetings, though

it may be a bit easier this time because of all the uncertainty in

the Bulldogs’ backfield.

Freshman Isaiah Crowell, the leading rusher with 832 yards, is

slowed by an ankle injury. His backup, Richard Samuel, is still

recovering from ankle surgery and can’t go. Disciplinary issues

have hurt the depth even more, allowing walk-on Brandon Harton to

climb into a prominent role.

Special teams have been a major problem for both teams. Georgia

Tech has used three guys to handle kickoffs, two punters, four punt

returners, and a staggering nine kickoff returners. Georgia endured

baffling slumps by its two star specialists, kicker Brandon Walsh

and punter Drew Butler, though both looked much better in an SEC

East-clinching win over Kentucky last week.

Regardless of the outcome Saturday, both teams appear to have

bright futures. Georgia, with only five senior starters, has gotten

huge contributions from its touted freshman class. Georgia Tech’s

two-deep depth chart features two dozen freshmen and

sophomores.

”We’ve had a really, really young team,” Yellow Jackets coach

Paul Johnson said. ”If everybody comes back, I guess we’ll have

nine starters back on offense and we’ll probably have seven or

eight on defense, so we’ve got a good nucleus.”

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