ATHENS – Natrez Patrick couldn’t help but laugh at the question.
Georgia is going to face No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta on Dec. 1. There is nothing that can change that fact. The Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) clinched the SEC Eastern Division championship and the title game berth that goes with it with last week’s 34-17 win over Kentucky in Lexington.
Meanwhile, they’re getting ready to play an Auburn team that hasn’t exactly lit it up this season. The defending SEC West champions are 6-3 (3-3 SEC) and, at this point, playing for a second-tier bowl bid.
So, Patrick was asked, is there a concern that the Bulldogs might be a little flat on Saturday and not fully focused on the task at hand?
“Playing for a guy named Kirby Smart, that’s never really a worry in the world,” said Patrick, a wide grin stretching across his face. “He never lets you get comfortable. At the end of the day, yes, the East is won. But at the end of the day we’re playing for something bigger. I feel like the team has a pretty good sense of that.”
These bitter rivals will play for the third time in a calendar year and 123rd time in history Saturday night at Sanford Stadium (7 p.m., TV: ESPN; Radio: WSB 750 AM, 95.5 FM). It’s the Bulldogs first home game in more than a month, having last played between the hedges in a 41-13 win over Vanderbilt on Oct. 6.
They left Athens ranked No. 2 in the nation. They return ranked No. 5 – thanks to a 36-16 loss to LSU – but already crowned as SEC East champions.
Indeed, Georgia’s second straight appearance in the SEC Championship Game would have decidedly different should the Bulldogs lose another game before then. And the best chance for that to happen is Saturday against Auburn.
Don’t let the Tigers’ pedestrian record deceive. Auburn, which Georgia defeated 28-7 to win the SEC championship a year ago, is coming in off back-to-back wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Auburn’s losses to LSU (22-21) and Tennessee (30-24) came by a total of seven points, and it was within a touchdown of Mississippi State with less than five minutes to play before falling 23-9.
With a winning record and a bowl berth locked up, the Tigers are actually feeling pretty good about themselves at the moment. And they could make their season with a Georgia upset in Athens.
“You could tell Sunday, it felt different from a confidence standpoint,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of his team’s current mindset coming Saturday’s come-from-behind victory. That’s exactly what we needed, that kind of win to help give us some momentum moving forward.”
There reality is, there isn’t a team in America that has broken the Bulldogs’ hearts more than Auburn. That makes perfect sense consider this rivalry spans three centuries. The series started in 1892 and has been interrupted only for two World Wars since 1898.
Because of where it’s annually located in the schedule, at the end of the fall slate, the Tigers have often knocked Georgia out of championship contention or just dribbled blue stains all over otherwise banner seasons. Auburn did that in 1942 when it handed the Bulldogs their only loss in what was a national championship season.
More recently, Auburn cost Georgia SEC titles in 1987 and 1988, broke the Bulldogs’ 23-game SEC winning streak and costing them a fourth straight SEC title in 1983 and knocking Georgia out of championship contention in 1978 and ’71.
In 2005, Georgia faced the Tigers at Sanford Stadium under very similar circumstances to the ones in which the teams will compete this Saturday. The No. 9-ranked Bulldogs were in control of the Eastern Division when a No. 15-ranked Auburn team came to town with upset on its mind.
In a back-and-forth game, the Tigers came out on top. Receiver Devin Aromashodu’s catch and long run and fumble into the end zone with under two minutes to play gave Auburn a 31-30 win before a raucous sell-out crowd.
The Bulldogs recovered, found out later they’d clinched the East berth anyway and actually went on to win the 2005 SEC Championship with a shocking win over LSU in the old Georgia Dome. But the damage was done as any hope of a BCS berth was wiped away with Georgia’s second defeat of the year. The Bulldogs lost to West Virginia in a Sugar Bowl matchup played in the Georgia Dome. Auburn defeated Alabama the next week to tie LSU for the SEC West title, but lost out to LSU in a tiebreaker to play in the Dome. The Tigers lost Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl to finish 9-3.
The inverse is true for the Bulldogs, too, of course. They’ve broke Auburn’s heart more than a few times, including that very next year. An unranked Georgia team led by freshman quarterback Matt Stafford used three Tra Battle interceptions to knock off No. 5 Auburn 37-15 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
So, it cuts both ways in this storied rivalry, and the young Bulldogs have been thoroughly schooled on those historical facts.
But coach Kirby Smart, the running backs coach for the Bulldogs during that 2005 season, said those lessons aren’t really necessary when it comes to Saturday’s matchup.
“They get your attention the minute you turn the tape on,” Smart said of the Tigers, who feature one the best defensive lines in the SEC. “They’ve got an experienced quarterback who’s got an elite arm (in Jarrett Stidham), they’ve got a lot of really good wideouts that are talented, fast — extremely fast — and they’ve got a defense that has been there forever. There’s not anybody on our team that’s going to be worried about anything but Auburn because that’s the next task at hand.”
The other side of this equation is what else the Bulldogs would lose with a loss. While few are giving them a chance of upsetting Alabama in the SEC title game, even that wouldn’t get them back into the College Football Playoffs should they lose another regular-season game beforehand.
Georgia players claim to not pay attention to the currently CFP Rankings, but they know enough about what’s going on to realize all that’s off the table with any defeat.
“We have enough motivation with what we have going this year,” junior running back Elijah Holyfield said. “We know we have a chance to play for more things down the road, and we’re just looking forward to playing against a good team, executing and playing our best.”
Said senior safety J.R. Reed: “We know that winning the East doesn’t mean that much. It’s really nice to win the East two times in a row, but now it’s Auburn. And then it’s on to the next team and whoever’s next after that. We just have to be where our feet are.”
That it IS Auburn and is a night game at Sanford Stadium for the first time in a month doesn’t hurt, though.
“It’s always good to be back between the hedges with our fans, the best fans in the nation,” Patrick said. “That gives us a really big spark. We get that spark at away games, too, but there’s just nothing like being at home.”