SEC Eastern Division championship? Check (clinched Nov. 10 at Auburn).
Victory against rival Georgia Tech? Check (42-10 on Saturday at Sanford Stadium).
Date with Alabama in the Georgia Dome with a national championship berth on the line? Coming this week.
The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) cleared their last hurdle toward making next week’s SEC Championship game matchup against the No. 2 Crimson Tide (11-1) the most meaningful game for Georgia in three decades. The last time Georgia had this much on the line in one game was at the end of the 1982 season when the No. 1-ranked and undefeated Bulldogs took on No. 2 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. The Nittany Lions won that one 27-23, and Herschel Walker turned pro a few weeks later.
Bama, the defending national champion, defeated Auburn 49-0 on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to secure the Western Division’s bid into the SEC Championship game.
“Well, the Southeastern Conference championship, first of all, stands alone as a very important event,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “The chance to get back to Atlanta is fantastic. To have a chance to win our league in any year is huge. That means a lot to us. What happens beyond that, of course, will be decided by the voters and all that kind of thing. But it does like the winner of the game … more than likely is going to go play for the national championship.
“That’s exciting to think about. But, again, SEC championships are hard to come by and, bottom line, we’re just excited about the opportunity for that.
It is Georgia’s second consecutive appearance in the SEC Championship game and fifth under Richt. They’ve won the SEC championship twice (2002, 2005) since divisional play began in 1992.
The Bulldogs lost to LSU 42-10 last year after leading 10-0 late into the second quarter.
“Our goal for the season last year was to get to the Dome, and I don’t think we had our goals set big enough,” junior guard Chris Burnette said. “This year we wanted to get back, but we want to get through the Dome and win that game. I think having that experience last year and a bunch of guys who played in that game is going to help us.”
Said junior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones: “We’ve still got that bad taste in our mouth. We went there last year, played the game and kind of stunk it up in the second half. We don’t want to leave the Dome feeling like we did last year.”
This one came easier than anyone could have expected. The Bulldogs needed barely one minute to register their first touchdown of the game. It came after Malcolm Mitchell returned the opening kickoff 47 yards to the Tech 44. Two passes and two runs later, Todd Gurley waltzed into the end zone from 3 yards out, and the tone was set for the day.
“That got everybody lit up,” said Mitchell, who finished the day as Georgia’s leading receiver, with three catches for 88 yards.
“I felt like we needed to get the game started off right and we were able to do that,” he said. “After we scored, we had momentum and I knew it was going to be a long day for them.”
Georgia scored on its first three possessions, but it was the defense that made certain this would be a rout. The Yellow Jackets were on the move on their first possession and reached the Bulldogs’ 1 on a counter sweep around right end. But senior safety Bacarri Rambo stripped A-back Robert Godhigh of the ball and returned the fumble 49 yards to midfield. It was one of two fumbles Rambo caused. He also had an interception, and Georgia limited Tech to 283 yards and three points before the starters left the game in the fourth quarter.
“I was just trying to make plays, man; trying to change the game around,” Rambo said. “I was just just trying to help the team finish strong.”
The Bulldogs have done that. They have now out-scored their past four opponents 162-27 and were able to rest most of the starters at the end of the game. Quarterback Aaron Murray finished with 215 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-17 passing, and the freshman tailback combination of Todd Gurley (12-97-2) and Keith Marshall (7-66-2) combined for 163 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
The victory continued an unprecedented period of dominance for Georgia in this storied rivalry. It was the 11th win for Richt in 12 seasons with the Bulldogs — that’s the first 11-1 stretch in the series — and the Bulldogs’ 18th in the past 22 years.
“It’s a great feeling,” Jones said. “We planned this out in early January. Guys made decisions to sacrifice making (NFL) money to come back and grind and get to his point. Now it’s right in our face. The only think we’ve got to do is stay focused and keep executing and making plays like we’ve been doing.”