ATHENS, Ga. — Perhaps the most dangerous trap in college football is the end-of-season, nonconference, in-state rivalry game. Encountering it on the road only enhances the degree of difficulty.
Both Georgia and Clemson have clinched division titles in their respective conferences. But before they can bask in those achievements and prepare for yet-to-be-determined foes in the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast championship games, they’ve got to navigate through the backyards of bitter neighbors more than capable of spoiling their moods.
It’s a lot to ask of players to prepare for such an emotional game sandwiched between two other emotional peaks. It’s especially tough for the Bulldogs who have grinded out a nine-game winning streak with a single-minded focus of rallying from an 0-2 start to win the SEC East.
“We have a good team and we know what we’ve done to get here and there’s no way we’re going to let this game slip through our fingers by coming out and sleep-walking,” Georgia senior tight end Aron White said of facing Georgia Tech on Saturday. “We’re very excited to play for the SEC Championship, but we’ve got to win the state championship first. Even if we won the SEC, I’m sure people would be saying, ‘Well you still lost to Tech.’ That’s not something we want to have happen. We hate Tech. Tech hates us.”
While Clemson has the built-in motivation of snapping a two-game losing streak to South Carolina to make sure everyone’s attention is focused at Williams-Brice Stadium, Georgia has to be careful not to get complacent. The Bulldogs have won consecutive games against the Yellow Jackets to potentially instill the players with an extra helping of confidence.
Seniors like White, however, understand what’s at stake. A 45-42 defeat to Paul Johnson’s first Georgia Tech team in 2008 at Sanford Stadium remains a stinging reminder of the perils of a rivalry game.
“Other people are saying stuff like don’t let it get lost in all the SEC commotion,” said White. “But players who have been around here for awhile, we know what it feels like to lose to Tech. The seniors will remind guys of how terrible that was.”
That 2008 Georgia team had been ranked preseason No. 1 and finished 10-3. It’s only losses prior to facing Georgia Tech were to SEC Championship-bound Alabama and Florida.
“So outside of Tech, our two losses were to extremely good opponents,” said White, not even hiding his scorn for believing the Yellow Jackets were inferior. “You lose to Tech and all of the sudden the season is a wash. That was a 10-win season, but everybody looks at it as such a disappointment. We know how that feels.”
To make matters worse, many of Georgia Tech’s players tore off pieces of the famous hedges as they celebrated the upset.
“It was really a horrible moment, so I don’t want to go through that again,” said junior safety Bacarri Rambo, who was a redshirt eyewitness of that defeat.
The next season only further illustrated the danger of these in-state confrontations (which on the Georgia side has been decided by more than a touchdown only once in the past seven meetings). Both Georgia Tech and Clemson were gearing up for an ACC Championship showdown only to have the wind sucked out of their sails with losses to their rivals. For Georgia Tech, it was the second time in four years that the Yellow Jackets suffered a letdown to the Bulldogs the week before playing for the ACC title.
Now Georgia Tech and its prolific triple-option rushing attack hope to poke holes in Georgia’s No. 2 rushing defense and return the favor.
“You could say the situations are similar,” said White, “but they’re not Georgia Tech from 2009 and we’re not Georgia from 2009.”
White is a great case study in what kind of animosity a rivalry can build in someone who never even cared about it before participating. He came to Georgia from Missouri and actually visited both schools on the same recruiting visit in 2006.
“Looking back, I can’t believe I visited Tech and was walking around like I might go there,” White said. “Knowing what I know now and being on this side of the rivalry, I’m almost ashamed.”
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, a Florida native, feels the same way.
“Ever since I’ve been here I’ve grown to hate Tech a lot and I love being a part of this rivalry,” said Murray. “We haven’t lost to them since I’ve been here, but I’ve heard that you don’t want to go an off-season of having to hear all the trash talk and this and that. It’s a big game.”
Senior center Ben Jones came to Georgia from Alabama and as a freshman looked forward to the Auburn rivalry more than anything else. That feeling evolved with the upset loss to the Jackets in 2008.
“After that first year, Tech is definitely the biggest rivalry game I’ve ever played in,” Jones said. “Once you lose a rivalry, that’s when you figure out, ‘Hey, this is a rivalry game.’ And you never want to lose to those guys again.”
It’s easy to say, but much harder to do when the trap game arrives.