ATHENS — As Georgia players were being interviewed in the concourse underneath the East grandstand at Sanford Stadium following their 24-10 win over South Carolina on Saturday, a thriller was going down 400 miles away in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky was fighting to hang on to a slim lead against Ole Miss. The Wildcats failed, losing on a touchdown pass in the final seconds.
This should’ve been a big deal to the Bulldogs, who clinched the SEC’s Eastern Division championship with a Rebels’ victory. Yet, not a soul was paying attention. Nary a television set was tuned into that game. Most of the Georgia players didn’t even know.
“You guys are telling me a lot of stuff I’m not aware of,” sophomore safety J.R. Reed said. “I guarantee you half the guys don’t even know that.”
Based on the six players who came out for postgame interviews, it was decidedly less than that.
So, no, there weren’t any celebrations being held at Sanford Stadium or anywhere around UGA’s football complex Saturday night. With the Ole Miss win, Georgia punched its ticket to the SEC Championship Game for the first time in five years. Yet nobody in red really cared.
Georgia, which is ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, wasn’t focused on that.
“We’ve got a bigger prize in mind,” Reed said.
Maybe that was on the Bulldogs’ minds a little bit during their game against South Carolina. Though coming in as 24-point favorites, it was the least-dominating game they have played since Week 2 when they edged now No. 3-ranked Notre Dame 20-19 in South Bend.
This was far from powerful or pristine. Georgia made mistakes. It turned the ball over. It was victimized by trick plays on special teams, by its own hand and by South Carolina’s. The starters stayed on the field until the final snap for the first time in two months.
Yet Georgia won anyway. There seemed to some comfort and satisfaction in that for the Bulldogs.
“At the end of the day, it’s the SEC and we’ve got to expect to play four quarters of football,” running back Sony Michel said. “We got the W, that’s what we came for and I’m excited about it.”
Said fellow senior tailback Nick Chubb: “We don’t pay attention to the scoreboard. We just keep playing. We got the win.”
At the time Michel and Chubb were being interviewed, Kentucky had just fallen behind for the first time early in the fourth quarter. Chubb was asked if he was eager to see how that game turned out, you know, with a title on the line and all.
“I’m not going to tune into it; I’m going to go home and go to sleep,” he said with a grin.
And that was the attitude throughout the UGA locker room. Going back to when divisional play began 25 years ago, every Georgia team has started the season with the primary objective of winning the East. This one was no different.
But somewhere on the way to 9-0, all that fell by the wayside. As wins and margins of victory have mounted, there’s a buy-in to coach Kirby Smart’s mentality of having a single-minded focus on the only thing individuals can control, which is their own effort and responsibility not just in each game and each practice, but each play.
So it’s with blinders on that the Bulldogs are running this race. They’re staying in their lane and pretty much blocking out the rest of the noise.
Maybe athletic director Greg McGarity or somebody will drop an SEC East trophy at the practice complex sometime this week (yes, teams get one for it). But it’s doubtful anyone will.
Smart is likely to revert to his old safety self and tackle them before they get anywhere near.
“There’s not going to be a celebration,” Smart said of the prospect of clinching the East, then mere minutes away. “I mean, what’s there to celebrate? We’re going to play Auburn next week and that’s where our focus is. We control our destiny, so we’re a lot more worried about us than Kentucky-Ole Miss.”
Smart was getting toward the end of his 15-minute postgame news conference with reporters when Ole Miss finally hauled in the game-winning pass. A couple of reporters were watching the game live on iPads, but it was first evident with a faint whoop that went up in the photographers’ room behind the auditorium in which Smart was speaking.
The last question was whether there was any significance to Georgia winning the East for a first time in a good while.
“The only thing significant right now is that I get back over there [to the football complex] and talk to these recruits and get ready for Auburn,” Smart said. “That’s what I’ve got to do.”
At least Smart was aware of the divisional implications Saturday night. Most of his charges were oblivious of them.
Michel’s response to the news Georgia could clinch the East with a Kentucky loss was initially, “Say again?”
Explained the scenario, he shrugged. “I mean, ultimately that’s great. That’s the goal. That’s everybody’s goal. But we don’t really focus on that. Our focus today was South Carolina and we handled that, so we’re going to enjoy this victory. Because tomorrow, we know we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Spoken just like his coach.