ATHENS, Ga. — A Georgia team making dramatic improvements from a five-loss finish one year ago has won a new level of national respect.
The No. 2 Bulldogs landed on top of this week’s first College Football Playoff poll of the season. The honor made coach Kirby Smart nervous, as he tried to guard against a possible distraction before an important game.
Georgia (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference, No. 1 CFP) will play for its best start in 35 years when it faces South Carolina (6-2, 4-2) on Saturday. It’s a dangerous game for the Bulldogs, who are coming off an emotional 42-7 rout of Florida and play at No. 16 Auburn next week.
South Carolina has won three straight games and will be playing to protect its hopes of winning the SEC East. Georgia could clinch the East, and a spot in the SEC championship game, with a win over the Gamecocks and a Mississippi victory over Kentucky.
Smart downplayed his team’s CFP ranking .
“It’s really nothing more than a distraction more than anything, and our kids realize that, and they acknowledge that,” Smart said.
Smart’s players insist they won’t be distracted.
“We’ll handle it fine,” said senior linebacker Davin Bellamy. “We don’t listen to outside stuff. We’ve got a lot of games left. We’ve got to stay focused.”
Georgia has outscored its SEC opponents 212-52. The Bulldogs are more than a three-touchdown favorite over the Gamecocks, who will face their first ranked opponent of the year.
“Guys know how important this game is to our program,” said South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley.
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp was a senior with the Bulldogs when Smart was a talented freshman. Muschamp was asked this week if he ever coached up Smart as an upperclassman.
Muschamp laughed at the suggestion. “I tried to, but he didn’t listen,” Muschamp said. “I coached him up in basketball a lot. He never could beat us.”
Three former Georgia players — Muschamp, Smart and Colorado State coach Mike Bobo, the former Georgia quarterback and offensive coordinator — are all having successful seasons.