Now, the No. 14 Georgia Bulldogs have to wait six days for their third, and final, shot to clinch the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division. If Georgia (7-2, 5-2 SEC) beats Kentucky at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, it will play in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 3.
“I think they’ll be motivated,” Coach Mark Richt said of his team one day after its 31-30 loss to Auburn. “We’ve been so close to clinching the division for a while. I think they’re about ready to do it.”
The Wildcats (3-6, 2-4) are coming off a 48-43 win over Vanderbilt, but they have lost eight straight and 13 of the last 14 against the Bulldogs. The last time Kentucky beat Georgia in Sanford Stadium, where Saturday’s game will be played, was 1977.
It seemed impossible three weeks ago that Georgia would be in this position. The Bulldogs started the season 7-0 and climbed to No. 3 in the national polls. Then, with starting quarterback D.J. Shockley shelved due to an ankle injury, the Bulldogs lost 14-10 to Florida in a game in which Brandon Coutu missed two field goals.
Then Saturday, thanks to South Carolina eliminating the Gators from the SEC race earlier in the day, Georgia got another chance to clinch. They were on the verge of doing that when the Tigers converted a last-gasp, fourth-and-10 with a 62-yard pass against a blown coverage by Georgia safety Tra Battle.
The Tigers then kicked the winning field goal with :06 seconds left. It was the first back-to-back losses for the Bulldogs since November of 2001 and just the second time it has ever happened under Richt.
“This is going to be a real fired-up, excited team come Saturday,” safety Greg Blue said. “These two losses right here really hurt.”
If Georgia beats the Wildcats, it will be just the third time an Eastern Division team has advanced to the SEC title game with two conference losses. The Bulldogs did it in 2003, and Florida did it in 1992, the first year of the title game.
If the Bulldogs were to lose to the Wildcats, No. 19 South Carolina (7-3, 5-3) would become the first Eastern Division team ever to play in the SEC Championship Game after losing three conference games in the regular season.
The Bulldogs might have made the point moot if Richt had made an unconventional call at the end of the Auburn game, when the Tigers had a first down at Georgia’s 3-yard line with 1:52 remaining. Auburn, needing just a field goal to win, ran the clock down with three running plays and then kicked the winning field goal.
If the Bulldogs had allowed the Tigers to score on first down, they would have ended up with the ball back trailing by four points with about 1:30 left. Georgia coaches considered that strategy during the game but decided against it. After a night to sleep on it, Richt said Sunday he probably made the wrong decision.
“You hardly ever get in a position where you say that, but, in reality and in hindsight, that probably would have been the best thing to do,” he said. Given a chance to make the call again “I probably would have figured out a way to just say, ‘Let the guys score.’”
Despite the self doubt, Richt remained upbeat.
“I thought we played pretty darn good, actually, we just lost by a point,” he said. “It was a great college football game.”