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Berg: SEC title game gives Georgia an opportunity to prove itself as a top tier program
Swift
Georgia running back D'Andre Swift runs against Missouri during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Athens, Ga. - photo by John Amis | Associated Press

Coming into Saturday’s SEC Championship game against LSU, Georgia sits at No. 4 in the latest College Football Rankings — just barely inside the CFP if the season were to end today. But when it comes to the elite tier of college football programs, the Bulldogs have spent the last couple of years on the outside looking in. 

That could all change with a win on Saturday inside Mercedes-Benz. 

Yes, Georgia has had a sustained run of success in recent seasons, ever since Kirby Smart returned home to coach his alma mater, but the Bulldogs haven’t quite done enough to become a permanent fixture in the upper echelon of teams. 

Over the last four seasons (since Smart’s arrival in Athens) Georgia has won a respectable 43 games, better than most Division I programs, but a far cry from the 48 contests won by Ohio State and the 52 won by Alabama and Clemson. 

Those three schools have stood apart from the rest since the inception of the CFP, mainstays of the tournament-bracket system that has dominated the thoughts of college football fans since 2015. Each has made multiple appearances among the nation’s top four teams to finish the year, and each has won at least one championship. 

Georgia still sits at one playoff appearance, and that one was tainted by a stunning, overtime loss to the Crimson Tide two seasons ago in the championship game. Outside of that, the Bulldogs haven’t had a chance to play for a national title since the 80s, when Herschel Walker’s heroics lifted them to their most recent college football championship.

It’s a win that Georgia fans old and young cling to while fighting for national recognition, an echo of a more successful time for a program that has perennially disappointed ever since. 

There have been highs over the years, of course. The Bulldogs’ dominant victory over Hawaii in the 2008 Sugar Bowl had many clamoring for Georgia to finish the year at No. 1, and an overtime win over Oklahoma in the 2018 Rose Bowl seemed to have the team on the cusp of rivaling Alabama’s SEC prominence. 

But disappointment has never been far behind triumph, and head-scratching performances in devastating losses have hindered the team that just can’t seem to hold onto fourth-quarter leads in important games. Both defeats at the hands of the Crimson Tide in the last two years are testament to that. 

LSU’s win over Alabama provides a new nemesis for the Bulldogs in this year’s SEC Championship — and a new opportunity to stake their claim among the nation’s best. A victory on Saturday would do a few things for Georgia and homegrown hero Smart. 

For one, it would deliver a second conference title and CFP appearance in the last three years putting the Bulldogs in the driver’s seat to winning the national championship in January. But more important than that, it would establish the Bulldogs as a new superpower in college football — maybe even the team to beat in the SEC going into next season. 

Georgia doesn’t need a win to stay relevant going forward, but it sure would help. It’s a chance for national recognition that comes along oh so rarely for most college programs — a shot at establishing a recruiting feedback loop that could create a Bulldog dynasty. 

Yes, there’s much more at stake than the SEC championship and a spot in the CFP in Saturday’s game, more than bragging rights and momentum going into winter’s pivotal playoffs. At the heart of the contest is Georgia’s shot at joining Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State as one of the country’s most revered teams — a college superpower with a target on its back for years to come. 

No pressure. 

Nathan Berg is sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at nberg@gainesvilletimes.com or @NathanxBerg on Twitter.

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