ATLANTA — Georgia is headed to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Nothing would put a damper on that trip like finishing second in its own state.
When the 13th-ranked Bulldogs (9-2) face No. 25 Georgia Tech on Saturday, they'll be eager to avoid any sort of slip-up in what has been a comeback of a season. It started with two straight defeats and plenty of speculation that coach Mark Richt was on the way out.
Georgia hasn't lost since.
"We've been very concerned about the SEC throughout the season and trying to stay in the hunt," tight end Aron White said. "Luckily, we've put ourselves in position to play for the championship. But we've got to win the state championship first."
No matter what happens on this quick trip to Atlanta, the Bulldogs will be making a return trip next weekend to play for their first conference title since 2005 and, potentially, have a major say in who winds up in the national championship game.
But they haven't forgotten what happened to Georgia Tech two years ago.
The Yellow Jackets (8-3) were in a similar position when they faced Georgia, having already locked up a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. But their big season was left with a permanent stain when the Bulldogs pulled off a 30-24 upset.
"Even if we win the SEC championship this year but lost to Tech, I'm sure there would be plenty of people saying, 'Ohhhh, but we still lost to Tech,'" White said. "We hate Tech. And Tech hates us."
Georgia Tech was eliminated from the ACC race a couple of weeks ago but still has a shot at a 10-win season. It sure would be sweet to knock off the Bulldogs along the way, especially with Georgia's dominance over the last decade.
The Yellow Jackets have lost nine of the last 10 meetings — and none of them stung more than that 2009 game.
Time for payback.
"Oh, we would love to," running back Orwin Smith said. "Just the old-fashioned hate. It gets no better than spoiling their plans. It would be great, something to brag on."
Georgia Tech hasn't been able to do much bragging in this rivalry.
The rare exception came in 2008, when the Yellow Jackets stunned Georgia between the hedges 45-42, unleashing the triple-option on a defense that had no idea how to stop it.
Roddy Jones had one of the biggest plays in that game, breaking a couple of tackles on a 54-yard touchdown run down the sideline midway through the fourth quarter.
"It was surreal," said Jones, then a redshirt freshman and now a senior. "It all happened so fast. I wasn't sure I stayed in bounds. I wasn't sure if they were going to review it."
Jones wound up with 214 yards, part of a 409-yard rushing effort by the Yellow Jackets. Not surprisingly, given Georgia Tech's lack of success in the rivalry, he still hears about that balancing act down the sideline three long years ago.
"People come up and tell me where they were when they saw it," he said. "It's a very cool feeling. It kind of shows what the rivalry means to people and it's very humbling as well to have people say 'that's my favorite run' or other things like that."
Of course, it would be nice to create some new memories. For that to happen, the Yellow Jackets will have to run wild against one of the nation's toughest defenses.
Georgia ranks second in the NCAA against the run, allowing just 81.3 yards per game. Something will have to give against the Yellow Jackets, who are second nationally in rushing yards (323.6 a contest).
"We like the challenge," linebacker Christian Robinson said. "It's the biggest challenge we'll have from a run game this year, just knowing they're going to continue to do what they do no matter what we throw at 'em. That's their whole motto: just keep doing it, whether it's first down, second down, third down, all the way to fourth down."
The Bulldogs, led by outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, have held seven opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground and showed striking improvement in their second year under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, has eclipsed 300 yards rushing five times and been held under 200 yards only once with its throwback offense, which resembles the wishbone of the 1970s.
"It's so hard because you only see it once a year," said Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo said. "There's so much movement and once one person messes up, it allows them to make big plays. So we've just got to go out there, do our jobs and continue to hustle to the ball."
Georgia Tech's defense isn't nearly as imposing, giving up more than 30 points each of the last two games. The Yellow Jackets have struggled to slow Georgia on the ground in recent meetings, though it may be a bit easier this time because of all the uncertainty in the Bulldogs' backfield.
Freshman Isaiah Crowell, the leading rusher with 832 yards, is slowed by an ankle injury. His backup, Richard Samuel, is still recovering from ankle surgery and can't go. Disciplinary issues have hurt the depth even more, allowing walk-on Brandon Harton to climb into a prominent role.
Special teams have been a major problem for both teams. Georgia Tech has used three guys to handle kickoffs, two punters, four punt returners, and a staggering nine kickoff returners. Georgia endured baffling slumps by its two star specialists, kicker Brandon Walsh and punter Drew Butler, though both looked much better in an SEC East-clinching win over Kentucky last week.
Regardless of the outcome Saturday, both teams appear to have bright futures. Georgia, with only five senior starters, has gotten huge contributions from its touted freshman class. Georgia Tech's two-deep depth chart features two dozen freshmen and sophomores.
"We've had a really, really young team," Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson said. "If everybody comes back, I guess we'll have nine starters back on offense and we'll probably have seven or eight on defense, so we've got a good nucleus."