The Southeastern Conference championship game used to be a stay-at-home Saturday for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Roy Kramer’s landmark football event debuted at Legion Field in Birmingham in 1992 before moving to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in 1994, and the first 10 fixtures had either Florida or Tennessee representing the SEC East before the Bulldogs finally broke through in 2002. Those days seem long gone, as Georgia’s 38-19 win at Mississippi on Saturday night earned Kirby Smart’s program a fifth East crown in the last six years.
Georgia meets surprise SEC West champion LSU at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 3, although Smart didn’t exactly take the issue in Starkville.
“We didn’t really talk about it in the dressing room,” he said in a press conference. “It wasn’t our aim or intention, what we came here for. We came here to beat Mississippi State and we’re going to try to beat Kentucky next week. It’s one step at a time and you can’t win in this league.”
The only coaches with more SEC title fight appearances than Smart are Nick Saban (11) and Steve Spurrier (eight).
When asked a second question about meeting Brian Kelly’s Tigers early next month, Smart said, “We have to focus on Kentucky. Why would anyone think we’re going to talk about her? We have two games to play so that’s the furthest thing from my thought process.”
Surprisingly, Georgia players agreed with Smart’s thinking.
“We’re not looking forward,” said Ladd McConkey, sophomore redshirt receiver after amassing 141 all-purpose yards. “We have to keep our heads down and grind and when the time comes we will play that game.”
The Georgia-LSU pairing is the second-most-played SEC championship match behind Alabama-Florida, marking the Bulldogs’ and Tigers’ fifth collision. LSU is 3-1 to Georgia in Atlanta and 5-1 overall in the league title shot, with this 83.3% win clip leading the league.
LSU needed to beat Arkansas and win Alabama at Ole Miss on Saturday to hole their ticket and get the result they wanted on both fronts. The Tigers beat the Razorbacks, who were without quarterback KJ Jefferson, 13-10 to continue their unexpected success in their first year under Kelly.
“I could go through a laundry list of things we need to do better,” Kelly said in Fayetteville, “but the fact of the matter is our guys wanted to win and were ready to win. We found a way to win straight, and that’s really what this is all about.
“When you play SEC West, you find a way to win and I’m proud of that.”
Make no mistake, Smart is quite proud of what his Bulldogs achieve as reigning national champions. Georgia has now accumulated 25 straight regular-season wins, including 18 straight against conference opponents.
“I don’t want to downplay what our team is doing right now in terms of commitment to the practice and the toughness and the right course of action,” he said. “I think people sometimes take it for granted.”
The SEC championship game will feature two of college football’s best defensemen, with Georgia junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter destined for a top-10 pick in next April’s NFL draft, and LSU linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. , who is sure to receive a string of Freshman All-America honors.
Against the Razorbacks, the menacing five-star talent from Cypress, Texas had four sacks and two forced fumbles.
“He made such an impact on the game that we win the game,” Kelly said. “I don’t think there are enough superlatives to describe this young man. As you can imagine, he was awarded the ball.”
By the time Missouri took a 28-24 lead in Tennessee near the middle of the third quarter, Tigers quarterback Brady Cook had rushed 11 times for 102 yards. He would rush for 4 yards five times the rest of the way in the 66-24 carnage.
“We started putting more pressure on him to get him grounded in the backfield,” said Vols Redshirt junior defenseman Brandon Turnage. “It was really just a lockdown on the fringes and a man-on-man game.”
Imagine the odds one could have gotten in August predicting preseason No. 6 Texas A&M to become the first SEC team to miss bowl eligibility.
Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies fell to 3-7 on Saturday night with their 13-10 loss in Auburn, meaning their sixth straight loss. Texas A&M encountered a boisterous Jordan-Hare Stadium and an Auburn fan base rallied behind Tigers running back legend and current interim coach Carnell “Cadillac” Williams.
He then sped across the field to celebrate with the fans, including a whole host of his teammates from Auburn’s 13-0 run in 2004.
“I just guess this time,” Williams said after the Tigers improved to 4-6 with games still to come against Western Kentucky and rival Alabama. “It’s something special. It’s something nobody can ever take from us.”
No one can take Vanderbilt’s 24-21 disgruntled triumph in Kentucky from committed Commodores loyalists either.
Vandy had lost 26 consecutive conference competitions before stunning the Wildcats, and nobody appreciates the value of a league win more than second-year Commodores coach Clark Lea. Saturday marked Lea’s first SEC win as coach in his 14th attempt, and Vandy won 2-22 in league competitions during his stint as a full-back from 2002-04.
His first conference win as a player also came against Kentucky.
“We didn’t have the results we wanted all the time, but they came back into the fire with us,” said a swallowed Lea at his press conference. “It just felt inevitable that they would be rewarded. This is a team that cares deeply about what we build and they understand where we are building.
“I’ve told the players there’s still a lot of that ahead of us.”
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said, “We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror” after his Wildcats slipped to 6-4 as Georgia came to town. This has to be the first time a team hosts the CBS 3:30 game after a home loss to Vandy, right?
While Alabama took a step in the right direction in their 30-24 win at Ole Miss, according to coach Nick Saban, he prolonged late-game struggles for the Rebels, who went 41-7 in the fourth quarter of their last three games against the LSU, Texas A&M and the Crimson Tide.
“This is going to be one of those games that you will remember for the rest of your life,” said Rebels coach Lane Kiffin.
Talk about your early knockouts.
When Florida took a 21-0 lead late in the first quarter of their 38-6 win over South Carolina, the Gators had rushed for 224 yards in 23 games while holding the Gamecocks for 10 yards in nine games.
“We couldn’t stop them and we couldn’t stay on the field,” said South Carolina coach Shane Beamer.
After a few years of discrepancy or irrelevance, the Florida-Florida State game in Tallahassee on November 26 is sure to be a fun game.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected]