ATHENS — Jonathan Ledbetter keeps his 2017 SEC Championship ring in a lockbox in his bedroom. He breaks it out only for the Dawg Walks before Georgia home games and on special occasions such as banquets, weddings and funerals.
Similarly, the Bulldogs’ date with No. 1 Alabama in this year’s SEC Championship has been stashed away in a metaphorical lock box. Everybody knows it’s there, and they can’t wait to open it up and look at it. But Georgia players don’t dare discuss it or even think about it this week or for a few more after that.
Another SEC game against Auburn awaits the No. 6 Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) this Saturday (7 p.m., TV: ESPN; Radio: 750-AM, 95.5 FM), and there are two more games after that. That’s one of the hazards of securing the Eastern Division championship on the first weekend of November.
“Our main goal this week is to focus on Auburn,” senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said. “We clinched the East; that’s great. But now’s it’s back to work. We’re back to the drawing board and we’re not worried about anything down the line except for Auburn.”
Said junior running back Elijah Holyfield: “You can’t skip to anything. You have to go through your schedule. Auburn’s a really good team, and we’re focused on them.”
Both Holyfield and Ledbetter are members of the Bulldogs’ leadership committee. Asked if a moratorium had been placed on the utterance of the words “Alabama” or “Crimson Tide,” they said there had not. But it should be noted that neither came out of mouths of any of the Bulldogs interviewed on Monday.
“It’s just really unspoken,” Holyfield said with stone-faced seriousness. “We’re really not thinking about that right now; we’re thinking about Auburn. Only.”
The Tigers (6-3, 3-3) give Georgia enough to think about. Don’t let their pedestrian record mislead. Auburn has had more than its share of issues this season, most of them surrounding a rebuilt offensive line and the absence of a premier running back. But the Tigers still feature one of the SEC’s most formidable defensive fronts and are second only to that other SEC team whose name shall not be uttered in quarterback sacks with an average of 3.0 per game.
Also, junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham still has an “elite arm,” according to Georgia coach Kirby Smart, and he throws the ball to an enviable group of wide receivers led by Georgia native Darius Slayton.
Lest it be forgotten, the Bulldogs had just clinched the SEC East last year when they went to the Plains to faced Auburn. Carrying a No. 1 ranking at the time, Georgia was dismantled 40-17.
Nobody is expecting a similar result this year. But this is a steady-improving Auburn team that lost some close, hard-fought games early on and seems to have found its footing lately. The Tigers are coming in with some confidence having won their last two games, 31-16 on the road at Ole Miss and a 28-24 with a 14-point, fourth-quarter comeback over No. 25 Texas A&M.
Beyond that, long-time observers realize the participants in the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” know these two teams have made a habit of breaking the other’s heart.
In 2005, the Tigers knocked off a No. 9 Georgia team that would go on to win the SEC Championship 31-30 at Sanford Stadium. Just two years ago, the shoe was on the other foot as an unranked Georgia team upset No. 9 Auburn 13-7.
“It’s a rivalry game,” Smart said Monday. “Many of our kids were recruited by them and so many vice-versa. It’s always a rivalry game, and I think that a big part of that is being at your best when your best is needed. And that’s the challenge for our guys.”
Georgia remains a very young team that continues to perform beyond its experience level. The only setback has been a 36-16 loss at LSU that exposed some weaknesses the Bulldogs are still trying to overcome.
Meanwhile, No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0), who Georgia will play on Dec. 1 in Mercedes-Benz, just knocked off that same LSU team 29-0 in Baton Rouge. The Crimson Tide continues to play like a team with no flaws — save for a less-than-stellar kicking game — and pretty much looks unbeatable to this point.
The Bulldogs have been watching, too. Ledbetter admitted that much. Again, he wouldn’t mention ‘Bama by name, but Ledbetter said he watches all the SEC games that he can when he’s not playing himself on Saturdays. He said he uses them to size up himself and the other teams.
“I try to use it to better my play, like studying tape,” he said.
But Ledbetter wasn’t about to size up the Crimson Tide on Monday. Like last year when the Bulldogs rebounded from the loss to Auburn with dominating wins over Kentucky (42-13) and Georgia Tech (38-7), he knows the key to being ready for the big games coming down the line is to focus on what can be controlled in the here and now.
“We’re Georgia. We’ve always been about Georgia and we only focus on us,” Ledbetter said. “We are the top contender in our eyes, so we just worry about what we do. If we just focus on us, we’ll just have our own success and won’t have to worry about anyone else’s.”
It’s not like Georgia is getting ready to play UMass. The Auburn series is one that has been dominated by the road teams. The Bulldogs are 16-12-2 on the Plains while the Tigers are 18-14 in Athens. Two games separate the overall record in a rivalry that will be renewed for the 122nd time on Saturday night.
That’s enough to think about.
“We’re playing at home, at night, in our stadium, which I think is really important to our fans,” Smart said. “It’s important to our players to protect our home turf, and we want to put our best effort forward. And we’re certainly going to have to with the challenge they present.”
Added Ledbetter: “We want to write our story a certain way and we want to win every game possible. So this week is ALL we’re worried about. The SEC Championship Game will come, you know, but that has its own time. One hundred percent of our efforts are going into this Auburn game.”