November 26, 2012

Second time the charm?

Second opportunities don't always present themselves - especially where college football is sometimes concerned.

Take the third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (11-1).

Left for so much BCS road-kill after a 35-7 loss to South Carolina, the Bulldogs found their groove after the embarrassment in Columbia, S.C., eventually earning a spot in Saturday's SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome (4 p.m., CBS) against defending national champion Alabama.

Obviously, there's rare opportunity with a trip to the BCS Championship on the line.

But while that's certainly on the mind of players like senior wide receiver Tavarres King, the chance to wipe away the memory of last year's 42-10 loss to LSU is also a huge motivating factor.

"It's very motivating. You know, we were in that game last year. We know what it takes to get there. I feel like now we know what it takes to win," King said. "That game last year was a tough one and still tough to swallow because we were playing so well for a half, and came out flat in the second half we know we can't do that. We know it's going to be a 60-minute fight, and we can't worry about it."

King wasn't kidding.

Although the Bulldogs' 32-point loss may indicate otherwise, Georgia actually led the Tigers 10-7 at the half and could have had two more touchdowns if King and then-freshman Malcolm Mitchellhad not dropped what would have been sure touchdown passes.

Defensively, Georgia held LSU to 237 yards, but three turnovers (including a pick-6 by Morris Claiborne) and one huge special teams faux pas (62-yard punt return by Tyrann Matthews) helped ruin whatever chance the Bulldogs might have had.

King said the loss stuck his craw for months.

"For a while. I know I personally did for a while. I'm still a little bitter about it, but we've got another opportunity," King said. "We're glad to have another opportunity to play in an SEC Championship, and I'm going to try to make the most of it."

Senior linebacker Christian Robinson said last year's title experience should serve the Bulldogs well, especially when dealing with nerves that he admits was an issue for many on the team.

"We're a different team than last year heading into the SEC Championship game. We were really excited, and I think we were just simply excited to be there and didn't realize what we could have done," Robinson said. "We came out, had a great first half, and didn't finish like we wanted to. That's been dwelling on our minds since then."

One could argue the Bulldogs never recovered.

Georgia followed up the loss in the SEC title game with a 33-30 defeat at the hands of Michigan State in the Outback Bowl.

This year, there's a much bigger prize awaiting the Bulldogs if they can knock off Alabama - team that knows all about winning big games.

"We understand the weight that this game holds. It's a big challenge for us. I mean, it's a great opportunity, so we really want to make the best of it," linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "We're glad to get to this point. We've worked tremendously hard all season, and off-season, our focus is to go in here and give it everything we've got. We understand if we win this game we'll play in the title game."

King knows both teams will be ready.

"If you need any added motivation to be a champion in any way, shape or form something's wrong with you. If we win this game, we're SEC champions," King said. "That alone is enough motivation for us to get after it this Saturday. We do know what lies ahead. We win this one, and we'll have the opportunity to play Notre Dame."

But looking ahead is the last thing Robinson said the Bulldogs will do.

"This whole season we've won a lot of games, but we haven't celebrated like we want to yet, because we're not satisfied with where we're at," Robinson said. "Once we accomplish all those goals, that will be when we'll start celebrating. So we're hungry and humbled group that's ready to get to the game."

Jones is certainly grateful for the opportunity that awaits in Atlanta.

After losing to South Carolina in the manner that they did, Jones said it would have been easy for the Bulldogs to tuck their tails and play out the rest of the year.

But after Shawn Williams called his defensive teammates out - calling them "soft" prior to the Florida contest - something clicked.

After allowing 24.5 points in their first seven games, Georgia as only surrendered 8.6 in the five contests since - including a 17-9 win over the fourth-ranked Gators.

Will those numbers translate against Alabama? Time will tell.

"I think everybody just locked in and understood why we're here and what we're doing this for. Obviously, we made some goals early on at the beginning to come back and get to the point where we are today. I think South Carolina did a great job of reminding us and humbling us and got us on the right path," Jones said. "And you know, Shawn's stepped up and been the big leader that he is. That was a turning point for us of giving guys to see that we've got to work hard and we've got to improve every day. Then the guy just locked into it. We've been focused and we've been disciplined and very coachable. That got us to the point where we are today."