AUBURN, Ala. — From the day it was overwhelmed nearly 11 months ago in the second half when the Southeastern Conference championship was in its sights, the Georgia football team began eyeing a return trip to Atlanta.
The goal picked up momentum in January when its draft-eligible defensive underclassmen all passed on going to the NFL.
The mission was accomplished Saturday night when the No. 5 Bulldogs easily secured a second straight spot in the league title game by steamrolling woeful Auburn 38-0 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“That’s what we came back for,” senior safety Bacarri Rambo said. “We still haven’t finished business. It’s just the ticket to the Georgia Dome for the SEC championship. We’ve got to go there and handle business.”
The rout wasn’t unexpected but having to wait until Nov. 24 before its SEC title game opponent is officially locked down is a twist.
Top-ranked Alabama was upset by No. 15 Texas A&M 29-24 Saturday, so the Crimson Tide will have to wait to get the SEC West spot. That will come by beating Auburn in Tuscaloosa. If the Crimson Tide lose and Texas A&M beats Missouri, then the Aggies will go.
Given how Georgia (9-1, 7-1 SEC) had its way with the Tigers, that’s a considerable longshot.
The Bulldogs won for the sixth time in seven games against Auburn, shutting out their oldest rival for the first time since 28-0 in 1976.
Georgia will get another shot on Dec. 1 in the Georgia Dome at what they couldn’t get last year against LSU when the Bulldogs were outscored 35-0 in the second half in a 42-10 loss.
“It’s very difficult to get in position to go back to Atlanta, but I just think we really feel like since we were there last year and didn’t do very well–we played good for a half and we just didn’t do much the second half–we just want to play better,” coach Mark Richt said. “We want to have a better performance when we get there.”
Georgia is making its fifth trip to the league title game in Richt’s 12 seasons. That’s the most of any SEC East team during that span and tied with LSU for the most in the league. Florida and Tennessee played in the game three times.
“We had fun celebrating the victory and winning the East,” Richt said, “but I think there’s a little different feeling in everybody’s spirit about that Atlanta is not the end of the road we hope.”
Auburn (2-8, 0-7 SEC) was shutout for the first time in embattled coach Gene Chizik’s four seasons. The last time the Tigers were held scoreless in an SEC game at home was in 1997 in a 20-0 loss to Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs scored touchdowns on their first four possessions to bolt out to a 28-0 second-quarter lead.
Quarterback Aaron Murray completed his first 10 passes and connected on 18 of 24 for 208 yards and three touchdowns.
Georgia got a pair of 100-plus yard rushing games from freshmen tailback Todd Gurley (116 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries)
and Keith Marshall (105 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries).
The Bulldogs kept an Auburn offense that ranked 113th in the nation sputtering on a night when Jarvis Jones had a pair of sacks and Rambo snagged his 15th career interception. Auburn had nearly as many punts (eight) as first downs (11).
The Bulldogs shook off a four-touchdown beatdown at South Carolina in early October and rose up to win four straight conference games to secure their place in the championship game and remain in the mix for a BCS bowl berth and even the national title game, which players may have focused on as much or more than the league title tilt.
“These next two games are critical because you never know what can happen,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech and the uncertainty in the BCS title game picture.
The Alabama loss actually could hurt Georgia’s chances of going there unless two of the unbeaten teams above them in the BCS standings—Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame–lose. The SEC, which has won the last six national titles, might not even get a team in the title game.
The Tigers looked every bit like a team headed for its first winless SEC season since 1980.
Georgia drove 76, 80, 64 and 90 yards on its first four possessions.
Gurley rushed for 77 yards on six carries in the first half, scoring on a 6-yard touchdown run to make it 28-0.
Even without injured Marlon Brown, Georgia’s three starting receivers each hauled in first-half touchdown passes.
Murray took aim at an Auburn defense run by former Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and a secondary coached by former Bulldogs defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
He found Chris Conley across the middle in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead with 10:51 left in the first quarter.
He faked a handoff and fired a 5-yard touchdown to Malcolm Mitchell for a 14-0 Georgia lead with 1:19 left in the first.
After leaving the game for a play after getting knocked down hard, Murray rolled right and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres King in the right side of the end zone less than five minutes into the second quarter. The play was reviewed and it was ruled King was inbounds and Georgia led 21-0.
“Our goal really was to start fast,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who turned to a no-huddle, spread look with a faster pace than usual. “We really wanted try to tire out their D-lineman and really stay up tempo.”
The biggest cheer for Auburn fans on the night might have been when the final score was shown of rival Alabama losing.
Many Auburn fans began heading for the exits at halftime.
They didn’t have to witness Marshall breaking free up the middle and turning on the speed for a 62-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Or watch Emory Blake fumble after a third-quarter catch when Shawn Williams knocked the ball loose and Mike Gilliard recovered at the Bulldogs’ 11.
Georgia’s stayed with nearly all of its defensive starters until late in the fourth quarter to preserve the shutout.
“We’re ready for Alabama,” Rambo said. “if that’s who we’re going to play.”