When these players signed with their respective teams, whether they are fourth- or fifth-year seniors this season, neither of their schools had played in the league’s title game. In the first 10 years of the SEC Championship game, Florida and Tennessee were the only Eastern Division teams to qualify for the game. In the Western Division, Alabama and Auburn horded seven of the first nine bids.
Now, the Bulldogs (9-2) and Tigers (10-1) are threatening to go on similar runs. Georgia is making its third trip in four years today, and LSU is making its third in five years.
“Yeah, there’s a shift in power,” safety Greg Blue said. “I think we’ll be there next year again.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt, who is keenly aware that his team backed into the game thanks to South Carolina’s late-season upset of Florida, has tried to distance himself from any dynasty talk this week.
“It’s not domination by any means,” Richt said. “We’re just fighting like mad to get in it, and we have been fortunate to get in it, but I wouldn’t say (there’s a shift). We’re not a powerhouse in the East. Nobody in our league is a powerhouse. Either that or everybody is. That’s probably more like it.”
In fact, Richt doubts any team will dominate the league again the way Florida did when it went to five straight championship games from 1992-’96.
“It’s not like that happens year after year after year, there are just too many good teams with great players and great coaches and great resources,” he said. “I just don’t see one team in our league rising up and dominating year after year after year.”
That’s not the way Richt was talking when he took the Bulldogs’ head coaching job five seasons ago, senior safety Tra Battle said. Flipping the balance of power in the conference was one of his main topics in his first talk with the team, Battle said.
“He said, ‘When Bobby Bowden got to Florida State, there wasn’t too much to say about them.’ He said he wanted this to be the type of team that would be in the top 10 of the nation every year,” Battle said. “It seems like we’re making steps in that progression. I do think it’s a shift. Three times is kind of starting a streak.”
Andrew Whitworth, a senior offensive tackle for the Tigers, said he sees similarities between the Bulldogs and Tigers that have led to their recent wave of success.
“I think us and them are two of the most athletic and physical teams in the conference,” he said. “I think Georgia is definitely a team on the rise, and we’re getting where we need to be the last couple years. I hope that both these teams will continue to be the stronghold for the conference.”
Although this year’s seniors will be most closely connected to the turnaround, the credit for the reversal of fortunes doesn’t go to them, at least in Georgia’s case, cornerback DeMario Minter said.
“The people who turned it around were the Tony Gilberts and the Boss Baileys,” he said of two of the Bulldogs’ seniors from the 2002 team. “They established in us what to do to back to the top.”
It was simply their job to keep it going.
“I think we’re starting to get a foundation,” defensive tackle Gerald Anderson said. “I want to see Georgia in there every year.”