ATLANTA (AP) — The No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs have their eyes on the biggest prize of all.
Yet there's a gnawing desire to add another Southeastern Conference title to the trophy case.
Undefeated Georgia heads into Saturday's SEC championship game against No. 11 LSU having surely done enough to earn a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff, no matter the outcome against the Tigers.
By all indications, this is a rather meaningless affair.
Try telling that to coach Kirby Smart.
“It’s about that next step and having an opportunity to put a number on the wall that stays there forever,” Smart said. “It’s an SEC championship. You don’t belittle those. Those are hard to come by.”
Indeed, they have been hard to come by for the Bulldogs (12-0, No. 1 College Football Playoff ranking).
Georgia may have won the national title a year ago, but Alabama handed the Bulldogs their only loss of the season to claim the SEC championship. In fact, Smart's program has managed just three conference crowns in the last four decades — the most recent coming in 2017.
“There’s such a respect, especially in this part of the country, for the Southeastern Conference, that winning a Southeastern Conference championship is extremely impressive for the quality of football and the number of NFL players that come out of our conference,” Smart said. "I think our players take a lot of pride in that.”
Even so, there's no denying that LSU (9-3, No. 14 CFP) took a huge amount of luster off this game with its dismal performance a week ago at Texas A&M.
The Tigers had an outside shot to slide into the playoff if they could beat the Aggies — who had lost six straight SEC games and were arguably the most disappointing team in the country — and then knock off Georgia.
Those hopes evaporated with a stunning 38-23 loss in College Station, sending LSU to Atlanta as an 18 1/2-point underdog to a Georgia team that has lost only one game in the last two seasons.
“They took it hard after the game,” said Brian Kelly, the Tigers' first-year coach. "They care. They really want to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again. We can get beat, but we don’t want to be beat with not bringing our very best. Unfortunately, it’s one of those lessons to be learned in terms of how you need to prepare each and every week.”
Still, this has been a turnaround season for an LSU program that won the national title in 2019 but failed to post a winning record the last two years.
Last weekend's debacle notwithstanding, Kelly has the Tigers heading in the right direction again.
An SEC title would certainly be a most surprising capper to a season that already has exceeded expectations.
“We’re not perfect,” running back Josh Williams said. “We know some games that we just don’t do as well as we expect to do. But that doesn’t change our process and our mindset going into the next week. Just because it doesn’t look good for one game doesn’t mean it can’t look good for the next game.”
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