Georgia has probably never had more to play for against Georgia Tech as the two prepare to meet Saturday for the 112th time. For the Bulldogs in 2017, it’s about much more than clean, old-fashioned hate.
No. 7 Georgia (10-1) is still in the chase for a College Football Playoff spot, despite an ugly loss to No. 6 Auburn just two weeks ago, but will need to win its next two games to have any chance of making the playoffs. On the other side, the Yellow Jackets (5-5) are just trying to become bowl eligible, but are smarting at the idea of beating the in-state enemy.
True, Georgia is already is lock for the SEC championship game on Dec. 3 in Atlanta. The Bulldogs will face the winner of No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Auburn. However, absorbing a second regular-season loss would make it nearly impossible to make the playoffs, since three teams (Alabama, Miami and Wisconsin) all remain unbeaten and contenders from a Power Five conference.
The Bulldogs this year, except for the anomaly against Auburn on Nov. 11, have been physically dominant on both sides of the football with surprise freshman quarterback Jake Fromm and a running game that goes four deep. The early-season win against No. 9 Notre Dame propelled the Bulldogs up the rankings as they were No. 1 in the first two playoff rankings.
With the Bulldogs still in the national championship conversation, that means the Yellow Jackets will be even more pumped up to win for the third time in this rivalry since 2014. Despite Georgia’s dominance, it would be foolish to overlook a Georgia Tech program that was hammered 43-20 by Duke on Saturday.
Despite profound weaknesses on defense, the Yellow Jackets will be ready to provide the dagger to Georgia’s playoff dreams when they meet in Atlanta. Despite dropping the last two against the Yellow Jackets in Athens, Georgia has won all eight games in the series played in Atlanta since 2001.
This game will have absolutely no impact on Georgia playing for the SEC championship, but will mean everything to its hopes of squeezing in to the four-team playoff field.
Since the current playoff format was adapted in 2014, no two-loss teams have made the field. Probably the closest a two-loss team has come to making the playoffs was in 2016 when Big Ten champion Penn State (11-2) was held out, despite beating playoff-bound Ohio State (11-1 in the regular season).
This year, there could be multiple one-loss teams kept out of the playoffs with Oklahoma and Clemson also in that category, but both in the running for conference titles. If two-loss Auburn wins its last two to earn the SEC title, it would be hard to keep the Tigers out of the playoffs.
Georgia’s current situation is very similar to what it faced it 2012, when it last won 11 times in the regular season. Despite beating Georgia Tech, a heartbreaking loss as time ran out against Alabama in the SEC championship matchup assured it would not play for the national title in the now-defunct BCS format.
The Bulldogs will likely leave nothing to chance against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia’s running game (ranked 10th best in the country) and defense against the run (sixth-best overall) will likely keep this matchup a one-sided affair. However, those two recent losses by Georgia in the series were also not expected, even though the Bulldogs were not a playoff contender in 2014 or 2016.
Losing in overtime three years ago and by one point last year have Georgia’s full attention. Second-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is likely licking his chops for his first win against the Yellow Jackets.
Now, it’s just a matter of Georgia winning to keep those playoff hopes alive.
Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Bill_Murphy379 on Twitter.