On Oct. 30, as Georgia was still celebrating its 34-7 win over Florida, Mississippi State was playing Kentucky in Starkville, Mississippi.
As the Wildcats were playing to stay alive in the SEC East race, Mississippi State defeated Kentucky 31-17, ending the Wildcats’ hopes of an SEC championship, and putting Georgia officially back in the conference final.
Only two other teams in history have clinched a spot in the SEC Championship by Oct. 30 — Auburn in 2004 and Alabama in 1993. Georgia will play the winner of the SEC West in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Dec. 4.
The Bulldogs have won four of the last five SEC East championships, with Florida winning the division last year. Georgia has advanced to eight championship games since 1992 and won three, with the most recent win in 2019.
“The expectation is to win the East and go play for an SEC championship,” head coach Kirby Smart said after clinching the division. “I think it’s the greatest conference in the country in terms of competitive nature, the recruiting battles are really tough and [I’m] really proud of our guys for the work they’ve done.”
Remembering the past
The Bulldogs are still waiting to see who they will play, as the SEC West is still in contention.
Currently, Alabama leads the division with a 5-1 SEC record, its lone loss coming from Texas A&M.
The Aggies are second in the division with a 4-2 conference record. If Alabama and Texas A&M were to end the season tied, the Aggies would advance having beaten Alabama head-to-head.
In its eight championship game appearances, Georgia has played Alabama twice, losing both by less than 10 points each. Most recently, the Bulldogs fell in the 2018 title game 35-28 after losing 32-28 in 2012.
Many of the Bulldogs’ current team did not play in the 2018 game against the then-No. 1 Crimson Tide. After Alabama defeated the Bulldogs, it went on to the national championship, where Clemson defeated the Crimson Tide 44-16.
Now, Georgia sits in a different spot as the No. 1 team in the country and the only undefeated team in the SEC. Despite his team’s success, Smart is telling the Bulldogs not to pay too much attention to the rankings.
When the initial College Football Playoff rankings were announced on Nov. 5, Smart told his team not to watch the announcement, but instead watch the Atlanta Braves play in the World Series. He noted that since the introduction of the College Football Playoffs in 2014, out of the seven teams to have the initial No. 1 ranking, only one of them won the national championship.
The only team to start No. 1 and win the national championship was last season when Alabama defeated Ohio State.
“I made the point today, and I’ll continue to make the point, ‘Why did only one of the seven win it?’” Smart said on Nov. 5 prior to the rankings being released. “It’s pretty easy, because it … went to their head. It affected them. They didn’t continue to grow and get better.”
Focusing on the present
While the Bulldogs have already clinched a spot in the SEC championship game, they have one more conference game against Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The game will not have any impact on Georgia’s conference position, but a loss on the road would make a bid at the playoffs much harder.
If the Volunteers upset Georgia, the Bulldogs would almost certainly need to win the SEC Championship to avoid having two losses on the season. No team with two losses has ever made the College Football Playoffs.
Georgia is currently on a five-game winning streak against the Volunteers, with the last game ending in a 44-21 victory for the Bulldogs in 2020. The last time Tennessee defeated Georgia was in 2016, when Volunteer wide receiver Jauan Jennings caught a last-second pass to win 34-31 in Athens.
“We need to be focusing on Tennessee,” Smart said after defeating Missouri. The Bulldogs will be “playing in a really tough environment, one of the toughest places to play in the country.”
As of Nov. 9, the Bulldogs have a 96% chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor. That leads the country, with Alabama having the next-best chance at 71%.
Wide receiver Jaylen Johnson said that while having the No. 1 spot and a spot in the SEC championship is cool, Georgia can’t pay too much attention to those things, because the Bulldogs have bigger goals in mind: to win a national championship.
“It’s kind of like rat poison, like Coach Smart says. We haven’t proven anything yet, all we’ve done is secure a spot in the SEC championship, which is not what we want to do. We want more than that,” Johnson said.