With much on its mind, UGA says it’ll be ready for Tech

Only once have Georgia and Georgia Tech met when both had, as Tech coach Paul Johnson put it in 2009, bigger fish to fry. That was the 2012 installment of Clean Old-Fashioned Hate, which bore a peculiar set of dynamics.

Georgia was 10-1 and ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings; Georgia Tech was 6-5 and barely bowl-eligible. The Bulldogs were headed for a date with No. 2 Alabama in an SEC Championship game that essentially was a BCS semifinal; Tech was bound for Charlotte, N.C., and a matchup with Florida State only because Miami, which would have represented the ACC Coastal, removed itself from postseason play.

In 2012, Georgia and Tech weren’t equals. (That game’s final score — Bulldogs 42, Yellow Jackets 10 — told us what we already knew.) This year they’re much closer. Tech is 9-2 and was assured of playing FSU for the ACC title when Duke lost to North Carolina on Thursday. Georgia reached 9-2 by thrashing Charleston Southern 55-9 here Saturday and left Sanford Stadium in the hope that Tennessee would beat Missouri and hand the SEC East to the Bulldogs.

Most years, Tech-Georgia is bigger for Tech. This year, Tech was — as of nightfall Saturday — the only one of the two assured of playing for a conference championship Dec. 6. For those of a historical bent, Tech is 0-3 against Georgia when headed for the ACC title tilt; the Bulldogs are 5-0 against Tech when the SEC Championship game awaits.

Again, that tells us nothing we didn’t know. Only Mark Richt has taken Georgia to the SEC title game, and the Bulldogs under Richt have owned Tech. In the five games against the Jackets preceding a championship date — five games in which the Bulldogs might be looking ahead to Arkansas or LSU or Alabama — Richt’s teams have won by an average margin of 27 points.

Georgia under Richt is 12-1 against the Jackets, and even in the exception — Johnson’s 2008 breakthrough victory between the hedges — we couldn’t say the Bulldogs didn’t come to play. They led 28-12 at the half, whereupon Tech got going and Georgia wondered where Roddy Jones went. That victory snapped a string of seven consecutive Georgia wins and seemed, for 364 days, to augur the leveling of a rivalry that hadn’t lately been much of one.

But a nothing-special Georgia team upset Johnson’s ACC-champs-to-be at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2009, touching off another run of five in a row. Last year’s game looked to be the Jackets’ best shot since 2009, what with Tech playing at home and the Bulldogs working without quarterback Aaron Murray, who tore his ACL in his final game at Sanford Stadium. Sure enough, the Jackets seized a 20-0 lead. Behind a steadying Hutson Mason and rampaging Todd Gurley, Georgia won 41-34 in two overtimes.

Was that game a signal that the Jackets can’t beat Georgia no matter what they do, or does a better Tech team stand an even better chance this year? The Bulldogs, not surprisingly, didn’t seem to know much about the Jackets. “I haven’t seen much of them,” said receiver Chris Conley, who caught a touchdown pass from Mason on Georgia’s first snap Saturday and who made a terrific diving grab for another score. “This week will be about Georgia Tech. There will be no looking past this game.”

If you’re searching for reasons Georgia has dominated Tech under Richt in a way it didn’t even under Vince Dooley (who was an excellent 19-6 against the Jackets), you start with talent. But attention to detail is a strong No. 2. Even as Georgia fans ascribe greater importance to games against South Carolina and Florida and Auburn, Richt always has his team primed for its test two days after Thanksgiving.

Asked about such focus — a focus missing against Florida earlier this month, it must be said — Richt offered this: “We better be ready to play (the Jackets). There’s absolutely no excuse not to be ready for that game.”

Not that much can be learned from a drubbing of Charleston Southern, but it was impressive how precise the Bulldogs were Saturday. They led 14-0 after 4 1/2 minutes, 21-0 after 10, 45-3 at the half. Mason again threw more touchdown passes (three) than incomplete passes (two). Nick Chubb scored on an 83-yard burst and finished with 113 yards on nine carries. This didn’t appear a team with its mind still on Auburn, or on Missouri, or on anything but the opponent at hand.

“I haven’t seen much of them,” defensive back Damian Swann said, speaking of the Jackets. “I did see a little bit of their game with Clemson. They’re shooting up the rankings, and their coach is one of the smartest guys in the country at running the option.”

The week ahead will be devoted to Tech. For the next few hours, though, the Bulldogs could be excused for thinking there was a bigger fish that needed frying. Speaking of Missouri, Swann said: “Neyland Stadium is a tough place to play at 7:30 at night. I’ve been there.”