ATLANTA – Georgia football players stood around, grouped by position, looking around and taking in the gleaming new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where a day later they would play the most important game of their careers. But they didn’t seem in awe.
Kirby Smart smiled, as he has often this week. Quarterback Jake Fromm let loose with a yawn that lasted about 10 seconds. Defensive linemen Jonathan Ledbetter and Malik Herring smiled and held their arms around each other as they walked the length of a sideline. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship was one of the few getting some real work in, studying the background behind the uprights.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who used to hold the same job at Tennessee, spoke with Bud Ford, who used to be the communications guru at Tennessee. Goodness knows how their conversation went.
This was just a walk-through; not a serious practice. More like a stand-through while media members were allowed in. Still, those looking for a message might find one: It’s nearly impossible to look tense during a walk-through, but the Bulldogs and Smart do seem loose entering this SEC Championship Game on Saturday. Or at least more loose than Smart and the team were entering the first game with Auburn.
Perhaps the pressure is off. Georgia (11-1) isn’t the favorite in the rematch against Auburn (10-2), although many are still predicting the Bulldogs to avenge their 40-17 loss just three weeks ago. Smart’s team already is playing with house money when it comes to the big picture of a season in which it was picked to win the SEC East but not the SEC championship. And here the Bulldogs are, at minimum claiming their first division title in five years and with a chance to make the College Football Playoff.
“A lot of fan bases — not a lot of them have been, but the ones who have been a lot, they are spoiled. They take it for granted,” Smart said. “There was a time that the Bulldog Nation in Georgia took it for granted when there was a run of however many years in a row they were able to come. I don’t think you appreciate that until you’ve lost it.”
Senior tight end Jeb Blazevich recalled his freshman year, when the Bulldogs came a day away from getting into the championship game. Missouri dashed those hopes by winning the Friday before Georgia’s game against Georgia Tech. But it still gave Blazevich the impression, the mistaken one it turns out, that getting there would be a regularity.
“Look how close we were; obviously we’ll be back,” Blazevich said, describing the mindset at the time. “I mean, you just learn quick that there’s highs and lows of every season. Obviously, we’ve had one low but what an awesome opportunity to go back and face them again.”
Georgia may have been thumped badly in the first game with Auburn, and previous rematches in the SEC championship have tended to go the same way: Five out of six went to the winner of the first game. But there is general agreement that intangibles, and one tangible event, have swung in Georgia’s favor.
The tangible: Auburn star tailback Kerryon Johnson, who had more than 200 total yards in the first game, is a game-time decision with a shoulder injury. If he plays, he doesn’t figure to be at full strength.
The intangibles begin with the site: Auburn will not have the immense home-crowd advantage it had three weeks ago, and Georgia could end up with the edge.
“Yeah, I’m sure there will be more Georgia fans than Auburn fans from what I understand,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “But we will — our fans will be extremely loud. We have played on the road a lot in some pretty loud environments, and I really believe that those experiences will help us.”
There’s also the potential for distractions. Both Auburn coordinators have been mentioned for head coaching jobs elsewhere. Malzahn is apparently set to be pursued by Arkansas, and he was asked Friday about a column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette pleading with him to “come home.”
“I think you asked me something similar to that. I’m focused on this game,” Malzahn said in response to the question. “This is for the SEC championship, and I’m the head coach of Auburn.”
Georgia, on the other hand, doesn’t have much swirling outside the program. It has a veteran team that has gone 4-0 against teams it lost to last year and now has a chance to avenge this year’s lone loss.
“We wanted that (rematch) for sure. Just because we felt we left so much out there,” sophomore tight end Isaac Nauta said. “Coming off the field, that’s never a good feeling. We want to go out on the field and play a good one, and bring a championship back to Athens.”