At this point, Georgia coach Kirby Smart is used to the pressure that comes with the No. 1, as the Bulldogs took first place in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings after dismantling then-top-ranked Tennessee on Saturday.
“I feel like we’ve had a target in our backs all year. I really don’t feel like that’s changing, is it?” he said. “When you won the national championship the year before, you have a target in your back from day one. It doesn’t change regardless of your record or the venue you play at. We talk toughness and DNA and DNA travel.”
Smart will see how well his team’s DNA travels when Georgia (9-0, 6-0 SEK) plays Mississippi State (6-3, 3-3) in Starkville, Miss., at 7 p.m. Saturday night.
“We’re assuming it’s an opportunity to work our composure muscle, our endurance muscle, our connection muscle and our toughness muscle,” Smart said. “We don’t do all that lifting and prepping not to use. I expect our boys to use it and if or when we need it you need to be prepared. It’s a really difficult place to play and they have a really good team.”
Georgia can win its fifth SEC East Division title in six years with a win over Mississippi State or next week’s Kentucky (6-3, 3-3). Georgia also advances into the SEC title game if Tennessee loses one of its three remaining league games, beginning with Saturday’s contest against visiting Missouri (4-5, 2-4).
While Georgia and Mississippi State each have victories, they have achieved them in drastically different ways.
Georgia dominated Tennessee – taking a 21-3 lead and beating the Volunteers 387-289.
The Vols entered the game leading the country in points (49.4) and yards (553) per game.
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for 195 yards and was released six times. For the first time in 21 games, he didn’t manage a single touchdown pass. It took Tennessee 55-45 to find the end zone – and after they were 27-6 behind.
Mississippi State gambled away an 18-point lead over Auburn in the second half before prevailing 39-33 in overtime.
Mississippi State has one of the better offenses Georgia will face this season.
Behind Will Rogers, who completed 68.3 percent of his passes for SEC-leading 2,912 yards and 26 touchdowns against just five interceptions, Mississippi ranks eighth in passing offense (325.6) and 11th nationwide in the red zone (0.926).
Rara Thomas has 36 receptions for 504 yards and five scores, while Moose Muhammad III has 30 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns.
“We know they have really good threats out there and they have a pretty good quarterback as well,” said Georgia defenseman Kelee Ringo. “Honestly, we just have to try not to let anyone come behind us.”
Dillon Johnson (71 carries, 406 yards, 3 TDs) and Jo’quavious Marks (77 carries, 357 yards, 7 TDs) led an improved rushing attack.
“What’s threatening is the holes they create,” Smart said. “They clean you up and then hit you with their descents, which are downhill, persistent, hard and physical. They’re looking for a reason to strike.”
But the state of Mississippi hasn’t faced a defense even remotely as good as the ones they’ll see on Saturday. Georgia ranks second nationally in scoring defense (10.78 ppg), fourth in total defense (265.6 ypg), sixth in rushing defense (86.4 ypg), and sixth Allowed in the first downs (126).
“They’re a really talented group,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said of Georgia’s defense. “They’re aggressive, that’s the best way to sum it up. They are not complicated, they have good staff and they keep it simple enough for everyone to progress quickly.”
The Mississippi State defense, which has been a suspect all season considering it has allowed at least every opponent to score at least 27 points this season, faces what is by far its biggest challenge of the season on Saturday.
Georgia is nationally first in the red zone (.980), third in total number of attacks (514.2 ypg), 10th in passing offense (320.2 ypg), and 11th in scoring offense (40.1 ppg).
Stetson Bennett completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Tight end Brock Bowers has 34 receptions for 574 yards with three touchdowns, while Ladd McConkey has 38 catches for 507 yards and two threes. Kenny McIntosh was a threat from the backfield with 31 receptions for 322 yards, in addition to 384 yards and six points on 79 carries.
Daijun Edwards is averaging 5.6 yards per carry after lapping 486 yards and seven touchdowns with 87 carries.
“Focus on what you’re doing and be disciplined,” Leach said when asked what it takes to beat the best team in the nation. “The hardest part is getting the message across to everyone. It’s easy to say, but everyone has to believe and believe it. Just worry about what you’re doing, worry about your job.”