Georgia-Ga Tech stirs passions even when bigger goals denied
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Once they were eliminated from their respective conference races, Georgia and Georgia Tech began focusing on other goals.
Winning records and bowl eligibility, that sort of thing.
Now they get a shot at a really sweet consolation prize.
A victory over their state rival.
Georgia hosts Georgia Tech between the hedges Saturday in a matchup between 7-4 teams that failed to meet their preseason goals but haven't lost sight of how important this game is to fans on both sides.
''It doesn't matter the records or what's going on between the two (teams),'' Georgia offensive guard Greg Pyke said. ''It is going to be heated out there, probably a little bit chippy too.''
This will be the first meeting between the coaches, though there are some ties between Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson and Georgia's first-year leader, Kirby Smart.
When Johnson was coaching at Georgia Southern, he interviewed Smart but didn't offer him a job.
''I didn't really know him,'' Johnson recalled. ''I'm not sure I had an opening or whatever.''
Johnson said he spent time with Smart at a celebrity golf tournament last spring.
''Nice guy,'' Johnson said. ''I mean, he's no different than any other coach when you're around him. You tend to get along. I think sometimes fans don't quite understand that relationship. It's not all `don't speak to guys and can't stand them' and that kind of thing.''
But rest assured, they won't be on friendly terms Saturday.
Some other things to watch for in the latest edition of the rivalry known as Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate:
QUARTERBACK DUEL: Justin Thomas is winding down his Georgia Tech career. A three-year starter, he is adept at Johnson's triple-option offense and will go down as one of the rare players in NCAA history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 2,000 yards in his career. Georgia counters with freshman Jacob Eason, who took over the starting job in the second week of the season and never looked back. While there have been some growing pains along the way, Eason guided the Bulldogs to a couple of last-minute victories as well as an upset of Auburn.
X FACTOR: When asked about containing Georgia running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Johnson quickly shifted his attention to receiver and return specialist Isaiah McKenzie , who has the school records with five punt returns for touchdowns and six overall TD returns. ''He's the guy who has been their big-play guy,'' Johnson said. ''When he gets the ball in his hands, whether it's on a kick return or a pass or reverse or counter, he's got the ability to take it the distance.''
BIG PLAYS: The Bulldogs will be going against an offense they haven't seen in any other game this season. Discipline is always a key when facing the Yellow Jackets, who try to wear down their opponents with ball control and tedious runs in hopes of getting defenders to venture out of their lanes, opening up a shot at a big play. Smart emphasized that Georgia didn't just start studying the triple-option this week, but the Bulldogs did give up five plays of at least 25 yards in last week's victory over Louisiana-Lafayette. And Georgia Tech is coming off a game in which it had scoring plays of 54, 60 and 67 yards against Virginia .
BALL HAWKING: Georgia leads the Southeastern Conference with 14 interceptions, so Georgia Tech doesn't want to get behind and have to rely on its shaky passing game. Overall, the Bulldogs are plus-seven in turnover margin.
COACHING FALLOUT: A victory over Georgia would go a long way toward cooling speculation that Johnson's job might be in jeopardy with Georgia Tech bringing on a new athletic director, Todd Stansbury. Johnson has a 2-6 mark against the Bulldogs. Smart is on much more secure footing as he wraps up his first season as the Bulldogs coach. Still, his Georgia debut has hardly been a rousing success, marred by ugly losses to Florida and Vanderbilt, and the grumbling would surely intensify if he lost his first meeting against the Yellow Jackets. It's worth noting that Smart's predecessor, Mark Richt, went 13-2 against Georgia Tech.
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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