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Auburn has history of spoiling Georgia's SEC hopes

ATHENS, Ga. — Before he was able to relish the glory years of; 1980 and 1981, Buck Belue paid some painful dues in the Georgia-Auburn rivalry in 1978 and 1979.

In both 1978 and 1979, Georgia had a chance to clinch the Southeastern Conference championship. Each year, Auburn ended those hopes, first by tying the Bulldogs 22-22 in 1978 and then by beating Georgia 33-13 in 1979.

"I can just remember how devastated we were to be right on the verge of accomplishing our goal,'' said Belue, the former Georgia quarterback who now hosts a sports talk radio show in Atlanta.

Again this year, No. 7 Georgia (9-1 overall, 6-1 in the SEC) and No. 24 Auburn (7-3 overall, 4-2 SEC) will carry conference championship hopes into Saturday's 3:30 p.m. ET game at Auburn.

Georgia can clinch the SEC East and its first appearance in the Dec. 7 SEC championship game. Auburn's scenario in the West is more complicated, but it needs to beat Georgia and Alabama to protect its spot in the thick of the race, one-half game behind LSU.

For Georgia, the road to the SEC championship has always included a late date with Auburn.  From the 1933 debut season of the SEC, when the Tigers beat the Bulldogs 14-6 in Columbus to give Georgia its only conference loss of the year, the game has often played a key role in deciding the SEC race.  

With few exceptions, including 1998-2001 when Ole Miss fell behind Auburn on Georgia's schedule,  Auburn normally has been the Bulldogs' final SEC opponent. Auburn therefore often is in position to play the spoiler for Georgia's SEC championship hopes.

Auburn's traditional final SEC opponent is Alabama, so the Tigers' hopes are more often decided in that game. Beginning with the 1933 season, Auburn has cost Georgia the SEC championship seven times. In nine years, Georgia clinched the title with wins over Auburn.

A well-known unique aspect of the rivalry is the lack of a home-field advantage. Georgia has a winning record (11-8-2) at Auburn, and the Tigers are 17-8 in Athens.

Given that history, it is no surprise that Georgia has often celebrated SEC championships on Auburn's home turf.  Of Vince Dooley's six SEC titles as Georgia's coach from 1964-88, five were clinched at Auburn.

Auburn's current streak of three straight wins in the series includes a 29-26 overtime win over the Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2000. Last year, Georgia was stopped at the Auburn 1-yard line as time ran out in the Tigers' 24-17 win.

"It has been kind of crazy, but we've just got to try to go out there and take care of business this time,'' said Georgia senior linebacker Boss Bailey.

Never was the game more often a decisive factor in the SEC race than from 1976 through 1983. Seven times in that eight year span — including Belue's four seasons — Georgia either won the SEC title by beating Auburn or was denied the championship by the Tigers.

"I really feel the disappointment of 1978 and 1979 motivated us to do what it took to do it again,'' Belue said.

With Belue at quarterback, Georgia won the SEC and national titles in 1980 and added another SEC championship in 1981. John Lastinger took over at quarterback when Georgia made it three straight SEC titles in 1982.

Auburn's 13-7 win over Georgia in a 1983 clash of  top five teams signaled the end of the Bulldogs' SEC run.

Since the SEC split into East and West divisions in 1992, Auburn has advanced to two SEC championship games — 1997 and 2000. In 1997, Auburn clinched the West with a 45-34 win over Georgia.

For most current players and coaches, talk about past years when Auburn played the spoiler or Georgia clinched SEC titles is ancient history. Even second-year Georgia coach Mark Richt sounded vague when asked about Auburn's role of the spoiler in the series.

"I guess there have been a lot of games that have decided (the SEC race), whether Georgia won it or Auburn won it,'' Richt said before concluding: "Sometimes Auburn has kept Georgia from getting there, and sometimes it's the other way around.''

There is too much at stake in 2002 to spend much time on history lessons.

"We don't talk about it too much,'' said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. "The thing we talk about mainly is players and who you're playing against and we talk about the positives for us, what this game means for us.''  Added Tuberville: "There is a lot on this game for both sides. This is the first time Georgia has had a chance to get to Atlanta. I'm sure we'll get their best shot.''

Actually, this is Georgia's second chance this season to clinch a spot in the SEC championship game. By beating Florida on Nov. 2, Georgia would have clinched the East and might now be in the thick of the national championship picture. But Florida beat the Bulldogs, 20-13.

Still, with a win Saturday Georgia can move a step closer to its first SEC title since 1982. If Auburn can again play the spoiler role, Georgia and its fans would be devastated. Falling short of the SEC championship game would be an especially bitter ending after Georgia held a two-game lead in the division entering the month.  

Richt needs no history lesson to understand what is on the line for his team.

"You win, you're in,'' he said. "You lose, you're out.''

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