November 18, 2011

Opportunity at hand

After starting the season 0-2, the only way it looked like members of the Georgia Bulldogs would be able to watch the SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome, would be to buy a ticket.

Should Mark Richt's squad beat Kentucky Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium (12:21, SEC Network), the Bulldogs will be part of the show.

It doesn't get any simpler - win and Georgia is in. Lose, and South Carolina will be the SEC East champs.

"We've just been chipping away, chipping away, chipping away, and we had confidence that South Carolina might lose a couple of games and we wanted to be in the position that if they did, we'd have a chance to make it back to Atlanta," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "Our guys have stayed extremely focused, we've played extremely hard and we've put ourselves in that situation. We're one game away from getting back there and it's pretty exciting. I know our guys are pumped up and ready to go."

That's what Richt is counting on.

It's been six years since 13th-ranked Georgia (8-2, 6-1) last played for and won the SEC crown, and Richt believes that knowledge will be all the motivation the Bulldogs need against a Kentucky squad (4-6, 1-5) which was bounced last week by Vanderbilt, 38-8.

"We're excited about the possibility of winning the SEC Eastern Division championship. That's the goal: win the game and if we win that game we're in. We know what's at stake," Richt said. "I think our guys are going to continue to stay focused. I can't imagine them going backwards now. We're in a good place right now. I just hope we continue to prepare well and play well."

Kentucky coach Joker Phillips knows the Bulldogs are no laughing matter.

"What impressed me with the way Georgia plays, first of all you look at them physically. It's one of the biggest teams that we've played up front especially," Phillips said. "They go 360 (pounds), 360 in the backup with the nose guard. Their defensive ends, their three-man front, their defensive ends are about 305, which is the position that (defensive tackle Chris) Rumph plays. Their other side is about 305, then they have some lean, fast guys on the end with Jarvis Jones and they have (Alec) Ogletree."

Saturday's game is of particular importance to Bulldog tight end Aron White.

Not only will the senior be playing his final game at Sanford Stadium, but the opportunity to win a championship that same day will make up for a lot of the disappointment experienced by the Bulldogs the past couple of seasons.

"It's really good for our program, as a whole. It's been too long since we've been back to the SEC Championship. You know, 2007 was a year I think we definitely should have been playing for the championship," White said. "We dropped the ball against two East opponents (South Carolina and Tennessee) early, and it put us out of the running. That was tough to see that happen and since then, we seem to put ourselves out of contention early. That weighs on your season a little bit, not being able to stay in that hunt. On the positive side, it means a great deal to me, because I haven't had the chance to play in the SEC Championship, nobody on this team has. If we can go out and handle business like we should this Saturday, we'll be afforded that opportunity. What we need to do right now is focus in on Kentucky, because they're what's standing in between us and going back to the Dome."

The Bulldogs' path to this point has been an interesting one.

Should Georgia win, it will mark the first time that the loser of early-season matchup between the Bulldogs and Gamecocks actually came back to win the East.

"We have this game here that we know is a very crucial game. We have to focus on the game more than anything else. Usually the loser of that Georgia-South Carolina game, historically, you've been done," Richt said. "We have a chance to get back in it and control our own destiny. I don't know if there is a time that a team controlled its own destiny until this season. If we can finish strong, that'll be a first, so it would be unusual in that way."

After his team's 45-42 loss to the Gamecocks, Richt tried to tell anybody who would listen that his team still had a chance.

But it wasn't until last weekend's 45-7 shellacking of Auburn that those outside the program actually began to think it could be done.

"I went back to the locker room after the (South Carolina) game and I basically said, 'Men, just don't put your heads down. Don't lose heart. We've got a chance to be a good team.' I said, 'I left the field feeling encouraged that we have the right stuff. Now, what are we going to do with it?" Richt said. "Are we going to keep grinding and keep believing, or are we going to fall apart and start feeling sorry for ourselves and start pointing fingers? We can't do that. The only chance we got is to stay together, keep fighting and keep grinding.' I was encouraged. I've said before sometimes you got to think quick and try and make something up to make guys feel better after the game or to try and help the moral of your team. It was very heartfelt. I really believed that we had a special group of guys and a special chemistry that was built through the offseason, especially in camp. I left camp feeling like we got a chance to be really good."

Anthony Dasher is the managing editor for UGASports
and he can be reached via email at [email protected]