ATHENS, Ga. -- The buildup to Saturday’s SEC championship game might seem familiar to those who were paying attention a year ago.
Following a lengthy winning streak, some Georgia players generated buzz with claims that the Bulldogs are every bit as good as their counterparts from top-ranked LSU’s fearsome defense despite entering the game as decided underdogs.
For a half, at least, it appeared as though the comments from defensive backs Sanders Commings and Shawn Williams were prophetic, as Georgia held LSU’s offense to 12 yards and led 10-7 at halftime before an avalanche of UGA mistakes and big plays from the Tigers led to a lopsided 42-10 LSU rout.
“I really just think we came out for whatever reason flat in the second half. We weren’t as hyped us as we were in the first half and LSU took advantage of it,” said Commings, a senior cornerback who helped Georgia reach the conference title game this season for the second straight fall. “I think it was a good learning experience for us going back into the game this year. We’ve just got to be ready to play a complete game.”
But why should anyone expect the outcome to be different on Saturday when third-ranked Georgia (11-1) takes on defending BCS champion and second-ranked Alabama (11-1), which boasts the nation’s most productive defense?
“We know what to expect,” linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. “We want bigger things and better things than last year. Last year we wanted to get to the SEC championship. This year we want to get past the SEC championship.
“We won the East [this season] and people celebrated that, but we did that before. We beat [Georgia] Tech and people celebrated, but we did that before. We want bigger things.”
Therein lies the biggest difference according to the many Bulldogs who were key contributors in Georgia winning the SEC East last season for the first time since 2005.
The seniors on this team endured 8-5 and 6-7 seasons as freshmen and sophomores and started 0-2 last season before recovering to win 10 straight and advance to Atlanta. Winning the East, much less the conference title, hardly looked like a reasonable goal early in Sept. 2011. And even when they reached the SEC championship game, nobody gave the Bulldogs much of a shot at unseating then-undefeated LSU.
“I think just the newness of it kind of shocked people,” outside linebacker Cornelius Washington said. “I think we were ready in some aspects of the game, but when I look back on it, I don’t think certain players were ready for that kind of stage. But we have another year under our belt. We’ve been winning, we’ve been rolling along and I think guys are going to make plays.”
The Bulldogs clearly carry a different confidence level into this game than the one last December.
That team limped into the Georgia Dome with a malfunctioning running game that essentially forced Georgia’s offense to be one-dimensional -- a devastating factor as the game progressed after the Bulldogs successfully hit a few big passes in the early going. This team has a healthy backfield featuring a pair of productive running backs in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, a quarterback in Aaron Murray who has thrown 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last 18 quarters and a defense that was as stingy as anybody’s over the last month.
While they pay respect to Alabama and its success in recent seasons, they say they can win Saturday’s game -- and this time they seem convinced of that statement.
“There’s a different air around here,” senior receiver Tavarres King said.
And that has been their collective attitude since Jan. 13 when 15 NFL draft-eligible players and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt met with reporters in their team meeting room and collectively announced that they were staying at Georgia in an effort to win the BCS championship.
“I feel like this is our time,” said senior defensive lineman John Jenkins, one of the players who met with reporters on that January day, having turned down a sure opportunity to become an NFL player. “We have our motto, ‘Our team, our time, no regrets,’ so I just feel like being in this position this year compared to last year, I just feel like we’re just ready to play. I feel like we’re ready to play. Last year we enjoyed the journey, but everything was like, ‘Lights, glamour, action.’ Now it’s like, ‘Man, it’s just a game. We’ve just got to go out and play.’ ”
We’ll soon discover whether that approach will produce better results -- and even Jenkins is curious whether it will make a difference.
“We’ll have to find out,” he said.