No. 1 Georgia blocking out thoughts of Bama during Tech week

Georgia inside linebacker Channing Tindall (41) talks to reporters during a press conference at the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall in Athens on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles/UGA Athletics)

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Georgia inside linebacker Channing Tindall (41) talks to reporters during a press conference at the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall in Athens on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles/UGA Athletics)

ATHENS – It was an honest mistake. Channing Tindall simply misunderstood the question.

The senior linebacker was asked how he felt about playing “this rivalry game in Atlanta,” and Tindall honestly thought the reporter was asking him about No. 1 Georgia’s Dec. 4 matchup against No. 2 Alabama in the SEC Championship game the weekend after next.

“Well, Alabama, 0-and-2 record right now. Trying to change that,” Tindall said before a group of reporters attending UGA’s media day on Monday. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Right now we’re focused on Georgia Tech. We’ve got to take it one step at a time. When that time comes, I’ll speak more on it.”

Tindall was embarrassed when corrected by his inquisitor.

“No, I mean Tech, this rivalry this week,” the reporter emphasized

“Oh, I thought you were talking about Alabama,” Tindall said with a grin. “For this game, they have a really good quarterback we have to be equipped for. And also, that old-fashioned hate, we’ve just got to get ready for it. We’re going to their place and it should be a good game.”

Tindall’s misinterpretation is understandable. From the Georgia perspective, the rivalry known as Clean Old-Fashioned Hate might more accurately be described as Clean Old-Fashioned Dislike, or maybe Modern-Day Annoyance. After not playing last year due to the pandemic-altered schedule, the teams will renew their annual series for the 113th time on Saturday (noon, ABC).

Simply put, the Yellow Jackets just haven’t held up their end of the deal to be called a rival. That’s especially applicable when the game is played at historic Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Georgia hasn’t lost there since 1999, and the outcome that afternoon remains highly debated. Ask former Bulldogs coach Jim Donnan if Jasper Sanks’ fumble on the goal-line was actually a fumble.

Officially, though, Georgia hasn’t lost to Tech in Atlanta in this century, a span of 10 games over 20 years heading into Saturday’s contest. Overall, the Bulldogs lead the series 68-39-5 (UGA does not count two losses during World War II), but they’ve won 40 of those games over the last 50 years.

As a result, Tech-Georgia no longer is in the conversation about greatest in-state rivalries in the nation. It is now sits in a vapor trail behind several others that will be played this week, including Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan, Ole Miss-Mississippi State and even Clemson-South Carolina.

But don’t try to engage Georgia coach Kirby Smart into a discussion about which team is the Bulldogs’ biggest rival. They’re all rivals, in his opinion.

According to Smart, Georgia’s greatest rival remains “the standard.” That’s the elusive, intangible and pretty much impossible-to-achieve level of perfection to which the Bulldogs aspire to play each week. That’s not subject to whomever the opponent is in any given week.

But the dynamic heading into Hate Week is decidedly different than it once was. Smart was asked if had concerns about his players’ motivation level for Saturday’s game by a reporter who actually compared it to last week’s preparations for Charleston Southern. Georgia was installed as a 54-point favorite for last Saturday’s 56-7 win over the Buccaneers.

The Bulldogs opened this week as 35-point favorites over the Yellow Jackets.

“It will be completely different,” Smart snapped. “These kids were all recruited by Tech. They know Tech’s players; they know a lot of those guys. That doesn’t concern me. Our guys are very mature and handle things very well. … We’re going out to play our best game. That’s out goal: Play our best game of the season. How do we do that? We usually do that by practicing well. That would be the goal for us.”

Meanwhile, the old saying about Georgia Tech still applies: Don’t think it’s a big rival? Try losing to them.

Donnan certainly can attest to that. His last three Georgia teams all lost to the the Yellow Jackets. Two of them were marred by controversy. When the Bulldogs went down 27-15 between the hedges in 2000, the future Hall-of-Famer was out as coach.

Smart knows the sting of defeat to the Jackets as well. As Georgia’s coach, his first team went down in dramatic fashion, 28-27, at Sanford Stadium. As a Georgia player, Smart was among the seniors who participated in Senior Day before falling to the Yellow Jackets 22-19 in Athens. That broke of streak of seven consecutive wins by the Bulldogs.

Of course, none of Georgia’s players were born when it was a competitive series. So, now it’s a matter of personal perspective.

“Being from South Georgia, Georgia-Georgia Tech is huge,” redshirt sophomore tackle Warren McClendon said. “I had two uncles and a cousin play in this game. Every year growing up, we always watched it. So it’s a big game to me and I’m looking forward to it.”

Based on location and tradition, Georgia always has had a lot of rivals. The Bulldogs’ fans have argued for years about which one is the biggest. Is it Florida? What about Auburn or Tennessee? Where does South Carolina fit it?

As the 45-year-old head coach of the nation’s No. 1 team, Smart simply doesn’t view rivalries the same way anymore.

“It falls on deaf ears, if you say, ‘That’s our rival, that’s our rival, that’s our rival.’ We don’t get into that, because it loses its effectiveness if you use it all the time,” Smart said Monday. “Who’s not our rival? We look at it as a chance to grow to be the best team we can become. They stand in our way; we have an opportunity to go play them.”

But outside the confines of the Butts-Mehre Football Complex, that Georgia-Alabama matchup on Dec. 4 is hard to ignore. As long as the Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1 SEC) take care of business this Saturday at Auburn, the outcome most assuredly will have College Football Playoff implications.

As Tindall’s slip-up would indicate and he would later admit, the Bulldogs can’t help but have Alabama on their minds.

“I always do have it in the back of my head,” Tindall acknowledged. “That’s why when he was talking about the rivalry earlier, I went straight to thinking he was talking about Bama. But, yeah, I try to tone it out because whenever we do that, we’re not focused. We know we have to take it one game at a time. You can’t be focused on other teams when you have more games to play. You do that and it can overwhelm your head and it kind of goes all over the place.

“So, right now, we’re just worried about Georgia Tech, and we’re going to leave it at that.”