STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State is trying to fight into the upper echelon of the Southeastern Conference. Georgia is trying to make sure it doesn't fall from it.
That is why saturday's game at Davis-Wade Stadium is so important for both teams. The winner will stay relevant in the SEC race for at least another week while the loser will likely fade from contention before October begins.
Georgia (1-2, 0-2 SEC) and Mississippi State (1-2, 0-2) have excuses for their slow starts — the most obvious a pair of brutal schedules. Both have lost two straight games to nationally-ranked teams.
But in the high-expectation world of the SEC, excuses don't get the job done. Georgia coach Mark Richt knows his team is angry and frustrated, and is working to channel that energy into something productive.
"As we get closer to the game, we'll kind of work on the emotional part," Richt said. "You can get mad and you can get emotional on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday — it doesn't do you a whole lot of good Saturday unless you do it at the right time."
Georgia hasn't lost three straight games since 1990 and hasn't been 0-3 in the SEC since 1993.
Georgia's freshman quarterback, Aaron Murray, was the team's biggest question mark before the season started, but he's performed well, completing 46 of 74 passes (62.2 percent) for 605 yards and four touchdowns.
But the Bulldogs have missed star receiver A.J. Green, who was suspended for four games by the NCAA after selling his jersey for $1,000, and are still getting used to their 3-4 defensive scheme introduced during the offseason by new coordinator Todd Grantham.
Even with those issues, Arkansas needed a last-minute touchdown to beat Georgia 31-24 last week. Players are confident fortunes could turn quickly and aren't dwelling on the two straight losses.
"It definitely doesn't happen to Georgia teams (often)," receiver Tavarres King said. "I can't remember the last time it happened to me. But everyone is still upbeat. No one is down. No goal is too big for this team. There's a lot of football left to play and a lot left to be said."
Mississippi State looked like a much-improved team two weeks ago in a 17-14 loss to Auburn. But the Bulldogs were flattened 29-7 by LSU last weekend, with quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyler Russell combining to throw five interceptions.
Coach Dan Mullen said his team must cut down on mistakes, and the offensive line has to do a better job of giving Relf and Russell some time to throw. He also said his team must take advantage of the home-field advantage provided by Davis-Wade Stadium.
"You have to be able to win your home games in the Southeastern Conference," Mullen said. "If you don't win your home games, it's hard to be successful and get your program up to championship level."
If the offense can make a few big plays, Mississippi State's defense has proven quite capable. The Bulldogs are holding opponents to under 17 points and 283 yards per game.
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said even after losing Green, Georgia's offense has done a good job of moving the ball with its usual mixture of the running game and play-action passing.
Diaz worked with Richt back in the 1990s when the two were assistants at Florida State. He said Richt knows just as well as anybody this isn't a very sympathetic league.
"Whether you're trying to break in a new quarterback or teach a new defense or do anything, there's not a lot of people who feel sorry for you," Diaz said. "You've got to get it right in a hurry, and I think that's what both teams are figuring out right now."