ATHENS — Georgia football has one final hurdle before its SEC Championship Game showdown with Alabama, and it’s not one that Kirby Smart and his players are apt to overlook.
Rival Georgia Tech comes to Sanford Stadium looking to spoil the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs’ season, just as the Yellow Jackets have their past two trips to Athens.
The No. 5-ranked Georgia program (10-1) knows it must likely beat Georgia Tech (7-4) in the noon showdown (TV: SEC Network, Radio: WSB 750 AM, 95.5 FM) to keep its College Football Playoff hopes alive.
Here are five things about this week’s matchup in a rivalry known as “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate:”
Georgia has 15 scholarship seniors who will be making their final football appearance as Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium.
While 68 percent of the Georgia football roster is comprised of freshmen and sophomores, the current class of seniors has been invaluable in how they have transitioned from Mark Richt to Smart while providing leadership.
The Bulldogs senior starters: Center Lamont Gaillard, WR Terry Godwin, DE Jonathan Ledbetter, OLB D’Andre Walker, MLB Natrez Patrick and CB Deandre Baker.
This Georgia senior class is 41-11 and can boast an SEC Championship and College Football Playoff victory. The 41 wins are tied for fourth-best by a class in school history.
“This (senior) class, the ones who sit across the front row, each one has their own individual story,” Smart said. “Each one has bought into the program and given blood, sweat and tears for whatever that role is.
“I think you always remember your last game in Sanford Stadium, I certainly remember mine.”
Georgia football has suffered its fair share of attrition this season, a trend that diminishes the Bulldogs’ hopes of closing out the season impressively.
Inside linebacker Monty Rice, who leads the team in tackles per game, suffered a freak injury to his lower leg/foot during warmups before Georgia’s game with UMass last Saturday.
“The middle linebacker is critical against Tech’s offense, but really both linebackers,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Both have to be tremendous keys, and be able to read and react, they have to be good tacklers.”
Smart said X-Rays were taken, and Rice is not likely to play against Georgia Tech.
The Bulldogs’ offensive line has also been down two men, with freshman guard Cade Mays nursing a shoulder injury the past two outings and senior guard Kendall Baker out with a knee injury.
Smart said redshirt sophomore guard Ben Cleveland, who has been eased back the past two weeks after suffering a broken fibula in the Sept. 22 game at Missouri is expected to play.
Triple option prep
The unique nature of the Triple Option offense requires defensive players to adjust their style.
Smart explained the Georgia’s approach to keeping the Bulldogs familiar with the option principles, working in specific drill work whenever possible
“We did it a few weeks during the season when we felt like we had an opponent that we had gone against that was similar to our offense, (and) if they had similarities to offense we used an extra period to work on Tech,” Smart said. “We certainly had off-week, preseason camp, and we worked on Mondays the same amount we did last year but the difference is more who you’re doing it with and last year we were doing it with guys who had a lot more carry-over. This year it’s been new for a lot of guys.”
The Georgia players says part of the drill work involves them fending off 80-pound bags that are thrown at their legs in an effort to simulate the cut-blocking techniques the Yellow Jackets employ.
Smart knows all about the challenges associated with this in-state rivalry, having played it it himself as a two-time All-SEC safety at Georgia from 1995-1998.
If anyone can understand the tradition and familiarity between the programs, it’s Smart.
Ultimately, it’s the type of game that boils down to toughness, according to the Bulldogs’ head coach.
“Some guys don’t like to be physical, (and) if you don’t like to be physical, you won’t like this game,” Smart said. “This is about physicality, toughness, get down in the dirt, backyard football.”
Georgia won last season’s meeting in Atlanta, 38-7, but the Bulldogs haven’t beaten the Yellow Jackets in Sanford Stadium since 2012, and that makes Smart edgy.
“Toughness, physicality, heart … playing Tech is an attitude, it’s a want to hit, not to be hit,” Smart said. “It’s attack, not be attacked. That’s the approach we’re taking with it.”
About Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets have captured Georgia’s attention with a four-game win streak and No. 1-ranked rushing attack, averaging an eye-popping 353.7 yards rushing per game.
Smart has high praise for Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.
“When you have somebody with a graduate degree, master’s, doctorate, and (Paul Johnson) is all the way up there; he’s as far as you can be in the option world,” Smart said. “He’s able to see things from the field that most people don’t see because he watches it all the time. So if you make a mistake, he’ll make you pay or he’ll expose you on it maybe the very next play, maybe the very next drive. But he knows what complements what.”
Smart said it will require he and his coaches to stay on top of things from one play to the next.
“It’s a lot of moving parts, you’re trying to adapt quicker than they do,” Smart said. “And Georgia Tech does probably as good a job as anybody in the country at taking advantage of your weakness.”
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