Made-up motivation not required for Georgia’s SEC opener vs. South Carolina

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks intercepts a Spencer Rattler pass intended for South Carolina running back Juju McDowell and makes a long return setting up a Georgia scoring drive during the first quarter in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Columbia. “Curtis Compton / AJC file"

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ATHENS — Poor Tonka Hemingway.

Asked a random question from a random reporter two months ago in Nashville, he was having to hear about it this week as South Carolina prepares to visit No. 1 Georgia at Sanford Stadium.

A senior defensive tackle for the Gamecocks, Hemingway had the gall to leave out the Bulldogs’ home field when asked what were “the most hostile places” at which he had played in the SEC during his career.

For the record, this was Hemingway’s 10-second answer in the last 90 seconds of a 10-minute, question-and-answer session with television reporters at SEC Football Media Days on July 20: “I’d probably say one of the loudest, Texas A&M. Texas A&M’s a good one. Tennessee can get pretty loud, too. So, it’s between them two.”

Fifty-three days later, a reporter for UGA’s student newspaper informed coach Kirby Smart that Georgia wasn’t included on Hemingway’s list of toughest places to play. Never one to look a motivational gift in the mouth, the Bulldogs’ coach pounced on it.

“It sounds like Tonka called them out,” Smart said of Georgia’s fans. “So, maybe we’ll use Tonka for motivation and let him be the one that spurs our group to come out there at 3:30 and be really loud and fired up. I certainly hope our fan base will be there.”

Oh, they will be. Smart’s message spread like wildfire on Bulldogs fan sites and social-media threads. Many didn’t seem to realize that the unintended verbal slight wasn’t delivered this week.

The truth is, Georgia hasn’t needed much in the way of outside motivation to take care of business between the hedges for a while. The Bulldogs carry the nation’s longest home-field win streak into Saturday’s game at Sanford Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS). Thanks to Alabama’s loss to Texas at last weekend, it stands at 20 games. The Crimson Tide had won 21 in a row at Bryant-Denny Stadium before that.

Georgia’s home streak is one of many that have been piling up during what arguably is the greatest stretch of football in school history. The Bulldogs won 24 in a row at Sanford from 1980-83, when they won one national championship and three consecutive SEC titles.

This current streak has been even more dominant. Not only has Georgia won all 20 home games since Oct. 19, 2019, only two of those contests were even close. The Bulldogs slid by Texas A&M 19-13 in November 2019 and edged Mississippi State by 7 in 2020. Otherwise, they’ve outscored visitors by 578 points, or 28.9 points per game.

Games have been even more lopsided during the two-year run that ended in back-to-back national championships. Georgia won its six home games by an average of 36 points in 2021 and 29 points last season. What’s more, four of those opponents were shut out.

It can be argued that Georgia hasn’t played a world-class home schedule. This year’s slate would stand as Exhibit A. The Bulldogs have played only Tennessee-Martin and Ball State so far, winning the two home games by an aggregate score of 93-10.

But there have been a few decent matchups sprinkled throughout the streak. The Tennessee Volunteers were ranked No. 1 when they visited last year, and Georgia rolled 27-13 in a game that truly never was close. Otherwise, the most anticipated visitors tended to be traditional rivals Auburn, Tennessee or Georgia Tech, and frankly, none of them have been particularly good lately.

Duly noted this week, the last time Georgia lost at home was to the school that brings its football team to town Saturday – South Carolina (1-1). That one could not have been more resounding of an upset.

The No. 3-ranked and undefeated Bulldogs were 21.5-point favorites when the 3-2 Gamecocks arrived Oct. 12, 2019. Then everything that could go wrong did for the home team. Quarterback Jake Fromm was intercepted three times by the same cornerback, the dependable Rodrigo Blankenship pulled a field-goal attempt wide left and South Carolina toppled Georgia 20-17 in double-overtime.

The head coach for the Gamecocks that day was Will Muschamp, who currently is Georgia’s co-defensive coordinator. Their offensive coordinator was Bryan McClendon, who now oversees the Bulldogs’ receivers.

Asked if he brought up to the team this week that upset loss to South Carolina, Smart shot back: “No, I wouldn’t want to give B-Mac and Will the pleasure.”

The truth is, being the SEC opener for both teams, there really should be no extra motivation required. And there isn’t.

Conference contests are just different. Sure, they get more attention, like this one will as the SEC’s national game of the week for CBS. And there will be people sitting in all 92,746 seats, as opposed to some other Sanford sellouts where no-shows are not uncommon.

No, it’s the pure spirit of competition and pride that makes SEC games what they are. This is the last year of divisional play, and there rarely has been a route to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the SEC Championship game with a loss to an Eastern Division opponent.

Accordingly, the vibe throughout Georgia’s sparkling Butts-Mehre football complex has been decidedly more intense.

“Oh, it’s spoken every day,” junior wideout Arian Smith said. “Coach always says it every day in the team meeting: ‘It’s an SEC East opponent, so get your mind right.’ It’s a different game, a different opponent. So, you definitely have to be ready to buckle up your helmet.”

Said junior cornerback Kamari Lassiter: “We have to flip a switch whenever we start playing in the SEC, just because league play is different, you know? We pride ourselves on being one of the best conferences in the country, so we’re going against the best teams in the country. So whenever that happens, you have to turn your level of play up a notch just to be able to compete at a high level.”

This would’ve have been the mindset even if someone had not brought up Tonka Hemingway’s throwaway quote from two months ago. But Georgia’s eighth-year coach is nothing if not opportunistic. You don’t win 29 regular-season games in a row by leaving a motivational coin lying on the sidewalk.

Eight years into his tenure at UGA, Smart knows he has the Bulldogs faithful eating out of his hand. Over the years, they’ve followed in droves to South Bend, Indiana, and Pasadena, California, to Miami and Los Angeles and all points in between.

Accordingly, Smart expects Georgia’s fans to answer the gauntlet thrown down by South Carolina’s Tonka Hemingway, concocted or not.

“People want to question whether our fans are elite? We’ll find out Saturday, right?” Smart said, straight-faced. “… They’ve answered the bell every single time; I don’t know why they wouldn’t now.”

As for Hemingway, the 6-foot-3, 285-pound tackle is a major player for the Gamecocks. A second-team All-SEC selection a year ago, he has played in every South Carolina game the past three season. That includes when the Gamecocks last visited Athens on Sept. 18, 2021. Georgia won 40-13 that night in the first game that quarterback JT Daniels played in a full-to-capacity Sanford Stadium.

“Sanford and 92,000 is awesome!” Daniels exclaimed afterward. “I’ve never experienced a true home-field advantage like that.”

Hemingway, then a sophomore, recorded one assisted tackle in the contest. He has played a much larger role in much bigger games since.





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