ATHENS— No. 6 Georgia has plenty of possibilities on its plate: a trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game, a major bowl bid, maybe even a spot in the national championship game if everything goes the Bulldogs’ way.
But first things first.
There’s a streak to defend.
The Bulldogs (9-2) wrap up the regular season Saturday with their annual state showdown against Georgia Tech (7-4), a team they have beaten six years in a row.
Georgia is just one win away from equaling its longest run of success in the series, seven straight victories from 1991-97, and two away from duplicating the longest streak by either team: Georgia Tech’s eight straight wins from 1949-56, a period still remembered bitterly in Athens as "The Drought."
"Tradition is such a big part of this game, no matter how you try to downplay it," Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran said. "We don’t want to be the team that breaks that streak. It gives us a lot of pride when we go out there. We want to keep the streak going, keep the Governor’s Cup, all that good stuff."
Georgia has not lost to the Yellow Jackets since Mark Richt took over as coach. The Bulldogs romped in his first three seasons, winning each time by double-figure margins, including a 51-7 blowout in 2002 that is their largest margin of victory in the series.
The games were much tighter over the last three years, though the result remained the same: Georgia won 19-13 in 2004, 14-7 in ‘05 and 15-12 last season.
Richt has already reminded his team of its narrow margin of error against the Yellow Jackets.
"I just reported the scores of the last three ballgames. Every one of those, we could have lost very easily," he said. "I think they all understand that. Certainly the guys who were here last year know it could have gone either way."
A year ago, Georgia Tech was clinging to a 3-0 lead late in the third quarter when Tony Taylor scooped up a fumble and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown. The Yellow Jackets rallied to go up 12-7, but then-freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford guided Georgia on a 12-play, 64-yard drive that used up more than 7 minutes.
Stafford hooked up with Mohamed Massaquoi on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 1:45 remaining, went to Massaquoi again on the two-point conversion, then watched Paul Oliver pick off a pass from Reggie Ball to keep Georgia Tech from driving into position for the tying field goal.
"Our guys know this could easily be a three and three deal" over the last six years, Richt said.
While Georgia has some huge rivalries within the SEC, such as Florida, Auburn and Tennessee, Richt said this is the one game all Bulldog fans especially want to win each year.
Just ask Jim Donnan, who went 40-19 as Georgia’s coach but was fired after losing three straight to the Yellow Jackets.
When Richt travels around the state during the offseason, there’s plenty of talk about Tennessee when he’s up north, or Florida down south, or Auburn out west. But the Yellow Jackets come up no matter where he is.
"We all know how we feel about Georgia Tech as a rival," Richt said. "This is bigger than any of them, to the players and to the Georgia people. Any Georgia Bulldog fan and they would say this is the most important one. If they have two, Georgia Tech is always one of the two."
The game is especially important to native players such as Curran, who was born in Atlanta — not far from the Georgia Tech campus — and played his high school ball in the city’s sprawling suburbs. He was recruited by the Yellow Jackets, went on a visit to the school and has plenty of friends playing there.
The last thing Curran wants to hear over the next 365 days is a bunch of bragging Georgia Tech fans.
"This is a big deal for me," the freshman said.
But it’s not the only deal for the Bulldogs, who have surged into the top 10 with a four-game winning streak — three of the wins over teams that were ranked at the time — and may be playing as well as any team in the country.
Georgia still has a chance to play for the SEC championship, but only if Tennessee loses at Kentucky on Saturday. That game starts about two hours before the kickoff in Atlanta, so the Bulldogs might have a good idea of where they stand before they even take the field.
"Oh yeah, I definitely want to know what’s going on," Curran said. "If Kentucky wins, I know we’ll be pumped up."
And what if Tennessee wins?
"We’ll be pumped up either way because it’s Tech," he insisted. "Wherever we end up, we’ll be happy as long as we finish that last game strong."
Even if the Bulldogs are beaten out in the SEC East, there’s still a good chance of landing an at-large bid to a BCS bowl with a win over the Yellow Jackets. There’s even a convoluted chain of events that could propel Georgia into the BCS championship game, though that’s a definite longshot considering their No. 7 ranking in the latest standings.
Senior safety Kelin Johnson isn’t giving up on finishing No. 1.
"It’s not crazy talk," he said. "It’s about time they start talking about Georgia playing in the national championship game."