Georgia Bulldogs react to No. 1 national ranking

ATHENS – Georgia coach Kirby Smart gave the Bulldogs Sunday and Monday off because they were just bestowed the No. 1 ranking in both the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches polls.

And if you believe that, you might also believe that they’re selling gas for a buck a gallon in Athens these days.

No, Smart’s reaction – and that of the players under his charge – was quite predictable when asked Monday about Georgia holding the nation’s top ranking in both opinion polls for the first time since 2008.

“It’s just a number, right?” Smart said was during his weekly press conference in the team meeting room at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. “I mean, I don’t see it as a whole different plateau. The goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season. You always know that; everybody’s goal is there. But to have an opportunity to do that you’ve got to be in the (final) four, and that’s the most critical part.

“So, we won’t get caught up in that and we’ll let you guys write about it. That’s not a burden we carry. The burden we carry is how we play.”

Obviously, the Bulldogs (6-0, 4-0 SEC) have been playing quite well, so far. That’s why they arrive at season’s seventh week undefeated and with the nation’s top billing. They’ll put that ranking on the line against No. 11 Kentucky (6-0, 4-0) this Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS).

Georgia gained its distinction honestly. The Bulldogs defeated then-No. 18 Auburn 34-10 this past Saturday at Auburn. They also have top-10 wins under their belts against No. 3 Clemson (10-3) and No. 8 Arkansas (37-0).

Georgia opened the season ranked No. 5 in both the AP and coaches’ polls. It moved up to No. 2 after the neutral-site win over Clemson in Charlotte, then remained No. 2 until Sunday. The Bulldogs moved into the top spot after previous No. 1 Alabama lost to unranked Texas A&M, 41-38, in College Station, Texas, Saturday night.

As a result, Georgia finds itself ranked No. 1 this late in the season in the AP and coaches’ polls for the first time since it defeated Florida 44-0 in early November of the 1982 season. The Bulldogs finished the regular season No. 1 that year, then lost to No. 2 Penn State in the national championship game in the Sugar Bowl.

Georgia opened the 2008 season ranked No. 1. But the Bulldogs fell to No. 2 despite a 45-21 win over Georgia Southern in the opener. They had slipped all the way back to No. 3 by the time No. 8 Alabama beat them 41-30 in Week 5. Smart was defensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide at the time.

Georgia acquired the No. 1 spot in the much more important College Football Playoff ranking for two weeks toward the end of the 2017 season. The Bulldogs defeated South Carolina 24-10 as nation’s top team on Nov. 4, then fell to No. 10 Auburn 40-13 the following week at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Georgia would exact revenge against the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game that year and entered the CFP semifinals as the No. 3 team. The Bulldogs defeated No. 2 Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl before finally falling to No. 4 Alabama in the 2017 national championship game.

All of which makes for great reminiscing for fans and sportswriters. But Georgia’s coaches and players see such discussions as wasted energy. Besides, the Bulldogs know they will have their proverbial hands full with Kentucky.

Smart said the Wildcats, who are coming off back-to-back wins over Florida and LSU, are “by far” the most physically imposing team the Bulldogs have faced so far. The Wildcats feature an offensive line that is considered the best in the SEC and a defensive line that’s among the biggest and most ferocious in the league.

“The challenge ahead is for us,” Smart said, meaning to play to an internally-established standard. “I think our kids embrace that. It seems like each week the last three, four, five weeks, we’ve had big games. We have another opportunity, and that’s why you come to the SEC -- to play in big games.”

Not surprisingly, Georgia’s players were echoing the sentiments of their coach.

“I heard about it on social media,” junior tight end John FitzPatrick said of the Bulldogs’ No. 1 distinction. “I’m not on (social media) much and we don’t pay much attention to (rankings). It doesn’t really affect us. It doesn’t change our package plan. We don’t pay attention to it. We’re just going to focus on Kentucky.”

Said senior outside linebacker Adam Anderson: “Honestly, for me, my drive is to keep it neutral, keep it the same. Don’t change up; don’t try to be somebody that you’re not. Don’t let being No. 1 influence how you play now because, honestly, a lot of people let it get over their head a little and start playing different.”

It definitely ramps up the external atmosphere. For the third time this season, ESPN’s College GameDay will set up before a Georgia game, and the second time on UGA’s campus. In addition, the SEC Network’s sister show, SEC Nation, also will be in town on Saturday. The former will set up on the Myers Quadrangle while SEC Nation will be on the lawn in front of the Richard B. Russell Special Collections Library off Lumpkin Street.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will be featured in the CBS Sports’ SEC Game of the Week for the second of three straight games. Georgia-Florida on Oct. 30 in Jacksonville also is slated for that coveted 3:30 p.m. timeslot. The Gators are currently ranked 20th, meaning all four of UGA’s games in October will be against ranked opponents.

Anderson said the only people all that fuss truly influences is their opponents. Now they’ll be coming at them even harder. But the Bulldogs, he said, are getting used to it.

“When you come to the University of Georgia, you’re always targeted,” Anderson said with a laugh.