Originally created 11/18/02

Georgia fans can exhale: They're Atlanta bound



AUBURN, Ala. -- Georgia fans can make travel plans, because their team's definitely going to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

Auburn will need help to join the sixth-ranked Bulldogs, who clinched the Eastern Division with a 24-21 victory on Saturday.

Georgia (9-1, 7-1 SEC) will face a West Division team to be announced on Dec. 7 in the Georgia Dome, a building that's an hour down the road but has seemed much further during the Bulldogs' 20-year title drought. Linebacker Boss Bailey has his sights set on a bigger prize: The BCS bowl berth that comes with an SEC title.

"We did something big to get to Atlanta," Bailey said, "but we're trying to go through Atlanta."

Auburn (7-4, 4-3) will need to win at No. 9 Alabama, and hope Arkansas and LSU each lose one more game.

Rebounding won't be easy for the Tigers.

Georgia's David Greene lofted a 19-yard pass to Michael Johnson in the corner of the end zone on 4th-and-15 with 1:25 left for the game-winning touchdown.

"We played them all the way to the end," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "They're going to Atlanta and we've got to work hard and have a lot of luck to get there."

It took more pluck than luck for the Bulldogs to get into title territory after gaining just 63 first-half yards. They've never played in the championship game and haven't won the SEC since 1982, a much talked about drought they're ready to end.

"This is what I felt when I took the job at Georgia," second-year coach Mark Richt said. "I thought Georgia had the ingredients to be a champion."

He called on Johnson to replace an injured Terrence Edwards largely because the sophomore was big enough (6-3, 213 pounds) and physical enough to make big plays.

He caught 13 passes for 141 yards, more than doubling his season output entering the game.

"Greene threw a great ball," Johnson said. "The line had great protection, and coach Richt had faith in me. It was a big-time play."

The play was called 70-X-Takeoff, and Richt wouldn't comment on what he calculated as the odds for its success.

"It doesn't really matter," he said, smiling.

Richt thought he was going to have to abandon his mild-mannered persona when Georgia went into halftime down 14-3. Only two interceptions and a fumble recovery by Sean Jones ensured it wasn't worse.

Senior offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb took care of the motivational talk.

"I'm not the best in the world at that," Richt said. "Sometimes it's good to stay calm and sometimes it's good to get mad. I thought I was going to have to get mad. I'm glad Jon did it for me.

"Sean kept us in the game. Those turnovers are what saved us. It could have been 28-0. When we came in at halftime, I told the guys we were fortunate to be down 14-3."

Stinchcomb, who recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, said it was a relief to finally claim a title again. Stinchcomb, Terrence Edwards and Boss Bailey all had older brothers who played on Georgia teams during the title-free stretch.

"We can exhale a little bit," Stinchcomb said. "We've been trying to break through and make it to that SEC championship game for a long time. We can kind of breathe a little bit. We can relax."

Bailey said the first people he would call after the game were his older brothers Champ and Ronald.

"This is for everybody who's a Bulldog," he said. "I'm going to congratulate them. This is for them, too."