ATHENS, Ga. — It took the Georgia Bulldogs until December to finally become underdogs in the 2019 college football season.
LSU is a 7-point favorite against Georgia in Saturday afternoon's Southeastern Conference championship game inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This is the first time the Bulldogs have been underdogs since last December's SEC title game against Alabama, when the Crimson Tide were 11-point favorites and needed a fourth-quarter rally for a 35-28 win.
"You could say that's motivation for us," Bulldogs redshirt freshman outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari said Monday. "We've got to come in and compete no matter what, but it's win or go home, basically. We've got to come in and play our best, and you could say that will serve as a little more motivation for us, for sure."
Just how rare is Georgia as an underdog?
The Bulldogs have been favored in 34 straight regular-season games, a streak that started the week after they topped Notre Dame 20-19 at South Bend in September 2017 as 5-point underdogs. In Georgia's 36-16 loss last season to LSU, the Bulldogs entered Baton Rouge as 7.5-point favorites, but Georgia fourth-year coach Kirby Smart insists point spreads won't be a talking point this week.
"We really don't bring that up," he said. "What we worry about is what do we have to do to execute well. I don't get into who is favored by how many, because the people who make those decisions aren't in our meeting rooms, and they don't go through our practices. We try to control what we can control with how we practice and how we get ready.
"As many of the games we're favored in, it doesn't matter, so if you're not favored it probably doesn't matter, either."
Georgia's players, however, expect Smart to make an issue of it. The Bulldogs have been underdogs each of the last two times they've played Alabama — last year's SEC title game and the national championship game of the 2017 season — but have been the stronger team out of the gate, building double-digit leads in each of those eventual last-second losses.
"I feel like we'll definitely use it and that Coach Smart will express it to us a little bit and get guys going," senior receiver Tyler Simmons said. "The biggest thing is doing it for your brothers and not because you're underdogs. You're doing it for the guys next to you."
LSU enters Saturday with a 12-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll, while Georgia is 11-1 and ranked No. 4. The Bulldogs suffered a 20-17 double-overtime upset loss to South Carolina on Oct. 12, and they have four quality wins by a touchdown or less over Notre Dame, Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M.
Georgia will not have graduate transfer receiver Lawrence Cager on Saturday due to an ankle injury, while five-star freshman receiver George Pickens must sit out the first half after fighting in last Saturday's 52-7 win at Georgia Tech. The health of tailback D'Andre Swift's shoulder is being kept under wraps this week with practices closed, and some players believe that this underdog role is not a new feeling.
"Ever since the year started, I feel like people have been counting Georgia out," senior defensive tackle Michael Barnett said. "So this is like, 'What's new?' People have been saying all year that we weren't going to win, even when we were playing well and were favored, and then people started hopping on the train. It's really about focusing on us and doing what we need to execute."
Said sophomore offensive lineman Cade Mays: "It's definitely a challenge and something we've got to own up to. Everybody is counting us out."
Georgia junior quarterback Jake Fromm said Monday that Pickens apologized for his ejection.
"I think he's responded well," Fromm said. "There was a moment yesterday where he apologized for his actions, and you can definitely see a step for him growing up and trying to realize that his actions affected more than just him and that they affected the entire team. We're excited for him for the next step moving forward, but it is what it is."
A hot commodity
LSU first-year receivers coach and passing-game coordinator Joe Brady has been mentioned as a popular candidate in this coaching cycle, and Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron was asked Monday about trying to retain his 30-year-old star.
"We're a step ahead," Orgeron said. "We have a plan in place. I think we're in good shape."
Brady and Georgia first-year defensive coordinator Dan Lanning are among the five finalists for the Broyles Award as college football's top assistant.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.