ATHENS, Ga. — At 8-0, this is not a time to be messing with a winning formula, so Georgia coach Mark Richt says he plans to treat the next five days “like any other week, believe it or not.’’
Even so, this is not just another week. When No. 5 Georgia plays Florida next Saturday night in Jacksonville, it will be playing to lock up its first trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Because Georgia is looking to end a 20-year championship drought, easily the longest in the program’s history, the pent-up pressure is enormous.
“This would be unbelievable for us if we could get this win,’’ Richt said Sunday.
Just beating Florida would not bring that SEC championship to Georgia, but it would bring Georgia to the SEC championship game.
A win over Florida also would keep alive hopes for a national title. Georgia stayed No. 5 in both major polls Sunday.
Georgia players have maintained admirable focus through the build-up before big games against Clemson, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. But now comes Florida, which has four straight wins over Georgia and is 11-1 in the series since 1990.
The Florida game is big enough without SEC championship implications. Will the pressure finally get to Georgia’s players?
“I don’t think they will (feel pressure),’’ Richt said. “They’ve been able to stay focused all year long. We’ve played big games all year. I think we’ll be able to keep our focus. I’d be surprised if we don’t.’’
Added Richt: “We know what’s at stake. We also know what it’s taken to get us to this point. I don’t think we’ll stray away from that too much.’’
Georgia is 8-0 for the first time since 1982 and at 5-0 in the SEC East has the comfort of a two-game lead over Florida (5-3 overall, 3-2 SEC) and South Carolina (5-3, 3-2).
If it beats Florida, Georgia could finish no worse than a tie for first in the division with South Carolina. Thanks to a 13-7 win over the Gamecocks on Sept. 14, the Bulldogs would win a tie-breaker.
Even if Georgia loses to Florida, it still would be in control of its SEC championship game destiny. By beating Mississippi and Auburn, Georgia would be assured of a spot in the Dec. 7 game in the Georgia Dome. But if Georgia loses to Florida and then loses one more SEC game, Florida would win the East by beating Vanderbilt and South Carolina next month.
The obvious goal for Georgia is to protect that two-game cushion. With a loss to Florida, Richt said “our back will be against the wall.’’
As a former University of Miami player and long-time Florida State coach, Richt does not have to be briefed about Florida’s history. Though he is only 0-1 against Florida as Georgia’s coach, Richt knows how Florida has dominated the Bulldogs since 1990. “It takes a lot to change that kind of momentum, I don’t care what the records are,’’ Richt said. “It’s going to take a lot of good execution to get the job done.’’
Georgia gained momentum with its impressive 52-24 rout of Kentucky Saturday.
The Bulldogs won by dominating the second half 31-0. Richt said offensive tackle Kareem Marshall (sprained knee) could have returned to the Kentucky game if needed. Also, linebacker Chris Clemons left with a sprained ankle which Richt said should not be a serious injury. Richt said Clemons has had a bad ankle for several weeks.
Meanwhile, Richt said he expects tailback Musa Smith, who was held out of the Kentucky game, to return this week from his broken thumb.
Richt said “there is no way of telling right now’’ about offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb’s chances for this week. Richt said Stinchcomb and receiver Fred Gibson (thumb) are questionable for the Florida game.