Senior College Football Columnist

A championship -- and program's reputation -- on the line for Georgia


They're calling this the biggest Georgia game in 30 years. That only matters if the Bulldogs stop being the biggest tease since Maxim magazine.

Maxim has been publishing since 1998 and has stayed consistent in its, um, mission. The Dawgs under Mark Richt have offered varying degrees of that same anticipation. From 2002 through Jan. 1, 2008, Georgia under Mark Richt was 22-10 against ranked teams. Since that day, they are 7-14. This season's win over Florida was its first over a top 10 SEC team in five years.

You see where this is headed.

No. 3 Georgia needs to rebuild its good name in the SEC title game. Lose to No. 2 Alabama and they're the same ol' Dawgs. Just good enough to get to the mountaintop. Just same enough to let you down. These points are measured with an SEC ruler. A program that had won back-to-back division titles isn't bad. It's Georgia, promising lots but often delivering less.

Theirs is a great story, just not a very recent one. That national championship was 32 years ago, not 30. The last SEC title was in 2005. The last win over a top-five team before last month's Florida game came in 2006.

In the time since, they have been lapped by Les Miles' LSU, Urban Meyer's Florida, Nick Saban's Alabama and maybe even Steve Spurrier's South Carolina.

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"They can't say they own us anymore, that's for sure," Spurrier said after a 35-7 whomping of the Dawgs on Oct. 6.

This is the profile of No. 3 in the country? If Georgia gets past Alabama, that loss to South Carolina would tie the 2003 Oklahoma Sooners for the worst defeat (28 points) by a BCS title-game participant. That South Carolina game seemingly doomed the Dawgs' season. They have lost three in a row to the Gamecocks for the first time.

"We knew it was just one game," Richt said. "We didn't panic."

Georgia did its part by beating then-No. 3 Florida (and No. 2 in the BCS) on Oct. 27. South Carolina then lost twice, burdened by a tougher SEC schedule. If you want to say the Gators still have the better overall résumé, knock yourself out. If you want to say Georgia's best advantage is that it had the earliest loss (54 days ago), you would be right. If you want to say the Dawgs backed in to Atlanta, go ahead.

"I think we have to just wait a little bit before we decide how good this team is," Richt said.

The coach has learned. Last year at this time Georgia was considered nothing more than a speed bump against No. 1 LSU. It held the Tigers without a first-half first down but eventually lost by 32. The program's longest in-season winning streak in almost 30 years (10) didn't matter.

"I'm still a little bitter about it," said receiver Tavarres King.

This year is different, or feels that way. The SEC title game actually seems to be competitive. Alabama looks a bit vulnerable. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is a year older and better, the No. 1-rated passer in the country (The Tide's AJ McCarron is No. 2). If the Bama defense that was victimized by LSU and Texas A&M can't flush Murray out of the pocket, it's in trouble. Todd Gurley could end the season as the program's No. 2 freshman runner -- next to Herschel Walker. The defense has allowed 43 points in the final five games.

"You don't want to get them mad," receiver Rhett McGowan said. "They're physical guys. When their blood gets hot, it makes them better."

We'll see. Georgia can play loose. It is relatively healthy. There are no lingering questions about suspensions or about Richt's job security. He was extended during the offseason.

This team is the highest-scoring in Georgia history. With a win this would be only the third Georgia team to win 12 games, the second since the 1980 season. There's that 30-year reminder again.

Once again the SEC's title game is a de facto national semifinal. At stake is the state of Alabama's stranglehold on the crystal football even though Gene Chizik now has only visiting rights to Auburn's. At stake is the SEC's stranglehold on college football. The winner gets No. 1 Notre Dame.

At stake is not only what we all think of Georgia but what Georgia thinks of itself.

"I think they're hungry for some more," Richt said. "We just want to have a better performance than we had a year ago in Atlanta."

That's why in winning the SEC East again 19 days ago against Auburn the coach said, "The celebration wasn't quite as hard."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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