ATLANTA — Georgia knows just about everyone is looking past this game, figuring it’s nothing more than a mere inconvenience for top-ranked LSU on the way to playing for the national championship.
The Bulldogs would love to pull a shocker.
No. 12 Georgia (10-2) is on quite a roll heading into next Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship, winning 10 straight since starting the season with losses to Boise State and South Carolina.
Still, outside of those wearing red and black, no one gives the Bulldogs much of a chance against the mighty Tigers (12-0).
That’s OK with defensive back (and occasional running back) Branden Smith.
“We’ve been an underdog ever since those two games we lost,” he said. “We’re used to it. We believe in ourselves. Even when no one else believed, we still believed. Even though we’re an underdog now, we keep believing.”
A big reason the Bulldogs have yet to garner a lot of national attention, even while winning week after week, is their schedule. Georgia played two teams still ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 — and lost to them both. By a quirk of the rotation, they didn’t have to play any of the top teams in the SEC West and benefitted from a weak year in the East, especially from traditional power Florida.
LSU, on the other hand, has knocked off three of the top eight teams in The Associated Press rankings — No. 2 Alabama, No. 6 Arkansas and No. 8 Oregon — as well as No. 22 West Virginia.
Tigers coach Les Miles figures that big-game experience should be a huge help to his team in Atlanta.
“I remember being a little dead getting off the plane in West Virginia,” Miles said Sunday. “But we walked into the stadium, and it was just alive. It was a big-time environment, a wonderful night. Our guys just come to life. To me, we’re used to playing in that environment, used to being on the big stages. Our guys translate the glare of the lights to making plays in the game.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt was on the hot seat early in the season, especially coming off his program’s first losing record since 1996. But the Bulldogs have bounced back with their longest winning streak within a season since 1982.
Quarterback Aaron Murray has put up huge numbers, setting a school record for touchdowns passes (32). The 3-4 defense blossomed in its second year under coordinator Todd Granthan, ranking among the nation’s best against the run.
“It’s been fun to turn it around and see these players and these coaches enjoy the fruits of all their labor,” Richt said. “It was probably a whole lot more difficult for the players than it was for the coaches. We’re not out and about every day like the players who have to go to class .They probably got to hear it more than we do, so I’ve got a lot of respect for the players and how they handled everything. They really held everything together. It was fun to watch that.”
Freshman Isaiah Crowell, who didn’t play in a 31-17 victory over Georgia Tech because of an injured left ankle, should be back at practice Monday, according to Richt. The Bulldogs managed to beat their state rival by improvising in the backfield, using both Smith and another defensive back, Brandon Boykin, on the offensive side. But they expect to have their top rusher against LSU.
Crowell has gained 832 yards in his debut season despite injuries and a couple of disciplinary issues.
“Unless there’s a setback,” Richt said, “I think he will play in the game.”
The Bulldogs also are holding out hope that Crowell’s backup much of the season, Richard Samuel, will be able to play after undergoing surgery on his left ankle about a month ago. But he’s not expected to practice Monday, and his return is more of a longshot.
On the defensive side, Georgia will have its work cut out slowing an LSU team that is loaded at running back and can rip off points in lightning-quick spurts. Last Friday, the Tigers trailed Arkansas 14-0 early on but romped to a 41-17 victory.
Georgia counters with playmakers of its own, including outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (third in the nation with 13.5 sacks), safety Bacarri Rambo (second nationally with seven interceptions) and a pair of massive nose tackles, 351-pound John Jenkins and 350-pounder Kwame Geathers. They’ve held up well so far, but this will be by far their biggest test.
“I know they’re a talented team. I know they’re physical. I know they’ve got great athletes,” Grantham said. “I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m proud of our players.”
So is Richt, who expects his team to approach this game like it has the last 10.
“When we were 0-2, a lot of people in our (athletic) building were wanting to say, ‘Hey, we can go 10 in a row, we can go 10 in a row,’” the head coach said. “You can’t go 10 in a row unless you get one in a row. That kind of became our war cry.”