Georgia gets the rematch they craved

ATHENS - For the last 71 days, this is what Georgia's football team has wanted.

Moments after the No. 5 Bulldogs lost their first game of the season, 17-10 to LSU in Baton Rouge, La., on Sept. 20 they began talking about the possibility of a rematch. The only way to make that happen was for Georgia to advance to the SEC Championship game in Atlanta.

The Bulldogs (10-2) did their part by surviving a wild tiebreaker in the SEC East, a fact that was well known Saturday and confirmed by the league office Sunday. Georgia had little doubt that, if it did its part, it would face the No. 3 Tigers (11-1), who mowed down the SEC West and still have a shot at the national title.

"We thought it would be LSU if we were fortunate enough to get back," Coach Mark Richt said. "We talked in the locker room (after the first game) about taking care of our business and getting another opportunity to play them. We didn't think it would be anybody but them."

The teams will play Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Georgia Dome. The winner will be crowned conference champion and move on to a lucrative BCS bowl game. The loser probably will fall to a second-tier bowl game and lose out on the minimum $11 million payout that comes with a BCS invitation.

"The SEC title game is the SEC title game, but playing LSU is going to be a big test for us," Georgia fullback Jeremy Thomas said. "May the best team win. It's going to be a fun game to play. I'm just glad we get our chance."

Saturday will be the fifth time in school history Georgia has played an opponent twice in one year. One of those times came in 1943 against LSU. The Tigers won both those games.

Georgia's coaches and players said after Saturday afternoon's 34-17 win over Georgia Tech that playing a team a second time doesn't give an advantage to either squad since both are equally familiar with the other. LSU coach Nick Saban is used to playing teams twice in a season after spending six seasons as an NFL assistant.

"It's not that big a deal for me," he said. "Baseball teams play the same teams a lot of times. I don't think anything about the first game will have anything to do with this game."

The Georgia Dome crowd could be a different story. Last year, in Georgia's first appearance in the game, the Bulldogs whipped Arkansas 30-3 in front of a crowd that was at least 85 percent pro-Georgia and in a frenzy throughout the game. LSU's last trip to the title game came in 2001, when it beat Tennessee 31-20.

"It was a home game for Tennessee when we played there a couple years ago. I assume it will the same for Georgia," Saban said. "I'm sure our fans will represent us well, as well as they can relative to the tickets available to us."

Richt said he doesn't expect the same kind of home-field advantage this year. Georgia won its first conference title in 20 years last season, which contributed to the excitement level of its fan base.

"I really thought that was an unbelievable atmosphere for us last year," Richt said. "We definitely had a good crowd for Georgia, and there was a lot of intensity and excitement. This year I would have to think there will be a lot more fans from Baton Rogue than there were from Arkansas."

The Tigers' fans have plenty to be excited about this season. If LSU beats Georgia on Saturday and Oregon State can upset USC, the Tigers probably would play Oklahoma for the national championship.

"We're aware as a coaching staff and we'll make our players aware that the most important thing we have is the game we're playing and what is in front of us," said Saban, whose team knocked the Volunteers out of the national title game in the 2001 conference title game. "It's difficult to maintain your focus when you've got all this talk going on about where you are in the BCS and where you might be. Our team has been pretty good about that so far, and I hope we can continue to do that."

For the Bulldogs, who still have the slightest of chances to play for the national title, this is the only game left that matters, Richt said. The conference title game is more important than any BCS bowl game unless it's the national championship game, he said.

"I think everybody is excited about playing LSU again, but I think we're more excited about being in the SEC Championship game than we are thinking about being in a rematch," he said. "But if we were able to beat them, it would sure make everybody feel better about the one we lost earlier in the year."

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