Paschall: Georgia has become the new SEC title-game staple

Georgia photo by Rob Davis / Georgia players celebrate around receiver Ladd McConkey (84) after one of his two touchdowns during Saturday night’s 45-19 win at Mississippi State.
Georgia photo by Rob Davis / Georgia players celebrate around receiver Ladd McConkey (84) after one of his two touchdowns during Saturday night’s 45-19 win at Mississippi State.

The Southeastern Conference championship game used to be a stay-at-home Saturday for the Georgia Bulldogs.

Roy Kramer's groundbreaking football event made its debut at Birmingham's Legion Field in 1992 before moving to Atlanta's Georgia Dome in 1994, and the first 10 pairings had either Florida or Tennessee as the SEC East representative before the Bulldogs finally broke through in 2002. Those days seem long gone, as Georgia's 45-19 triumph at Mississippi State on Saturday night clinched a fifth East crown for Kirby Smart's program in the past six years.

Georgia will face surprising SEC West champ LSU on Dec. 3 inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, though Smart wasn't exactly embracing that topic in Starkville.

"We didn't really talk about it in the locker room," he said in a news conference. "That was not our goal or our intention of what we came over here to do. We came over here to beat Mississippi State, and we're going to go try to beat Kentucky next week. It's one step at a time, and you can't get ahead of yourself in this league."

The only coaches with more appearances in the SEC title game than Smart are Nick Saban (11) and Steve Spurrier (eight).

When asked a second question about meeting Brian Kelly's Tigers early next month, Smart said: "We've got to focus on Kentucky. Why would anybody think we're going to talk about them? We have two games to play, so that's the furthest thing from my thought process."

Georgia players, to nobody's surprise, were in tune with Smart's way of thinking.

"We're not looking ahead," redshirt sophomore receiver Ladd McConkey said after racking up 141 all-purpose yards. "We've got to keep our head down and grind, and when the time comes, we'll play that game."

The Georgia-LSU pairing is the second-most-played SEC championship matchup behind Alabama-Florida, with this marking the fifth collision of the Bulldogs and the Tigers. LSU is 3-1 against Georgia in Atlanta and 5-1 overall in the league's title contest, with that 83.3% win clip leading the league.

LSU needed to defeat Arkansas and have Alabama win at Ole Miss on Saturday to punch its ticket and got the desired outcome on both fronts. The Tigers prevailed 13-10 over the Razorbacks, who played without quarterback KJ Jefferson, to extend their unexpected first-year success under Kelly.

"I could go through a laundry list of things that we have to do better," Kelly said in Fayetteville, "but the fact of the matter is our guys wanted to win and were prepared to win. We found a way to win on the road, and that's really what all this is about.

"When you play in the SEC West, find a way to win, and that's what I'm proud of."

Make no mistake, Smart is quite proud of what his Bulldogs are accomplishing as the reigning national champions. Georgia has now amassed 25 straight regular-season wins, including 18 in a row against conference opposition.

"I don't want to minimize what our team is doing right now in terms of commitment to practice and toughness and doing things the right way," he said. "I think people take it for granted sometimes."


The SEC championship game will contain two of college football's top defenders, with Georgia junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter destined for a top-10 selection in next April's NFL draft and with LSU linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. certain for a slew of Freshman All-America honors.

Against the Razorbacks, the menacing five-star talent from Cypress, Texas, had four sacks and two forced fumbles.

"He impacted the game to the level of we win the game," Kelly said. "I don't think there are enough superlatives to talk about this young man. As you can imagine, he was awarded the game ball."


When Missouri pulled within 28-24 at Tennessee near the midway point of the third quarter, Tigers quarterback Brady Cook had rushed 11 times for 102 yards. He would rush five times for 4 yards the rest of the way in the 66-24 slaughter.

"We started calling more pressures to get him down on the ground in the backfield," Vols redshirt junior defensive back Brandon Turnage said. "It was really just locking up on the edges and playing some man-to-man."


Imagine the odds one could have received in August on projecting preseason No. 6 Texas A&M as the first SEC team to miss out on bowl eligibility.

Jimbo Fisher's Aggies fell to 3-7 Saturday night with their 13-10 loss at Auburn, which marked their sixth consecutive defeat. Texas A&M encountered a boisterous Jordan-Hare Stadium and an Auburn fan base that has rallied behind Tigers running back legend and current interim coach Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.

He raced around the field afterwards to celebrate with fans, which included a slew of his teammates from Auburn's 13-0 run in 2004.

"I just appreciate this time," Williams said after the Tigers improved to 4-6 with games remaining against Western Kentucky and rival Alabama. "It's special. It's something that no one can ever take away from us."


No one can take Vanderbilt's 24-21 upset triumph at Kentucky away from the dedicated Commodores faithful, either.

Vandy had lost 26 consecutive conference contests before stunning the Wildcats, and nobody appreciates the value of a league win more than Commodores second-year coach Clark Lea. Saturday marked Lea's first SEC win as a coach in his 14th attempt, and Vandy went 2-22 in league contests during his time as a fullback from 2002-04.

His first conference win as a player also transpired against Kentucky.

"We haven't had the results we've wanted all the time, but they've stepped back into the fire with us," a choked-up Lea said in his news conference. "It just felt inevitable that they were going to get rewarded. This is a team that cares a lot about what we're building, and they understand where we are in the build.

"I told the players that there are many more of these ahead of us."

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said, "We've got to look at ourselves in the mirror," after his Wildcats slipped to 6-4 with Georgia coming to town. This has to be the first time a team has hosted the CBS 3:30 game coming off a home loss to Vandy, right?


While Alabama took a step in the right direction according to coach Nick Saban during the 30-24 win at Ole Miss, it extended the late-game struggles for the Rebels, who have been outscored 41-7 in the fourth quarter of their past three games against LSU, Texas A&M and the Crimson Tide.

"This is going to be one of those games you remember your whole life," Rebels coach Lane Kiffin said.


Talk about your early knockouts.

When Florida took a 21-0 lead late in the first quarter of its 38-6 rout of South Carolina, the Gators had run 23 plays for 224 yards while holding the Gamecocks to nine plays for 10 yards.

"We couldn't stop them and we couldn't stay on the field," South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said.

After a few years of either mismatches or irrelevance, the Florida-Florida State game in Tallahassee on Nov. 26 sure is shaping up as a fun one.

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