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Georgia on brink of first SEC East crown

AUBURN, Ala. — Through 10 games, the sense of apprehension, the fear of another letdown, has been palpable in the Bulldog Nation.

Since 1982, when Georgia won its last Southeastern Conference championship, 19 seasons have passed. The long wait for another title or even a division crown has taken a toll.

Though not yet as jaded as, say, Chicago Cubs fans, Georgia faithful have seen October optimism turn to November gloom so many times that some have been reluctant to fully embrace this season's flirtation with SEC glory.

For sure, there has been an increase in the number of Georgia car flags around the state. Of course, every home game has been a sellout. Still the optimism has been guarded.

It is a lot to ask for a complete emotional investment from fans who are still treating psychological scars from 2000, 1997, 1992 and other years when Georgia dreamed of a championship but settled for also-ran status.

When Georgia had a two-game lead in the SEC East and enjoyed the opportunity to clinch a spot in the Dec. 7 conference championship game two weeks ago in Jacksonville, Fla., it seemed too easy. Georgia fans know SEC titles are clinched in Auburn, not Jacksonville, and so why should Eastern Division titles be any different? The 20-13 loss to Florida on Nov. 2 confirmed those fears and pushed back the day of reckoning to today.  

In the nationally televised 3:30 p.m. ET game at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, Georgia fans either will celebrate their first SEC East title, or they will experience another bitter letdown as the championship drought turns 20.

"One more win; winning is all that matters,'' said Georgia defensive end David Pollack, who with 11 quarterback sacks is two away from the school record.  Pollack snarled when asked about the sacks record.   "Sacks mean nothing after the year is over,'' he said. "You can have a ring on your finger for a lifetime.''   A loss to Auburn would not end the Bulldogs' championship hopes. Seventh-ranked Georgia (9-1 overall, 6-1 SEC) still would win the East if Florida loses at home to South Carolina tonight. Any Georgia fan hoping for an assist from the  Gamecocks  should know that South Carolina has never won at Florida. Only by beating Auburn can Georgia be assured of its place in the SEC championship game.

As if taking a cue from the quietly confident Coach Mark Richt, Georgia fans and players have talked softly through the first 10 games.  Players have heard frequent trash talking from opponents, and they were fired up by one well-placed manly challenge from former Auburn coach Pat Dye before the Alabama game, but there have been few retorts from Athens.

Georgia players have talked with respect all week about an Auburn offense led by the power running game of Ronnie Brown and the accurate play-action passing of quarterback Jason Campbell. There also has been respect paid to Auburn linebacker Karlos Dansby.

"(Dansby) has kind of been to their defense what Pollack has been to our defense,'' Richt explained. "I'm very concerned about our backs' ability to pick him up on the blitz, because he has the ability to run through blocks.''

Richt also cautioned that Auburn defensive tackle DeMarco McNeil "had his way with us'' in the Tigers' 24-17 win over the Bulldogs last year in Athens. Said Richt of the Auburn defense: "I think they run and hit as good as anybody we've played.''

Auburn (7-3 overall, 4-2 SEC) also is trying to protect its SEC championship hopes. The Tigers, one-half game behind first-place LSU in the SEC West, play at Alabama next Saturday.

Georgia's conference schedule ends today. The Bulldogs' regular season ends at home on Nov. 30 against Georgia Tech.

Last year's loss to Auburn was symbolic of an 8-4 season. That game ended with the Bulldogs stopped at the Auburn 1-yard line. The final 16 seconds left the Sanford Stadium clock as Richt called an ill-fated running play with Jasper Sanks instead of a pass that might have left time for another snap.

In 2001, Georgia was 1-3 in games decided by seven points or less. This year, Georgia is 4-1 in those close games as most gutsy calls have gone Richt 's way.  The statistic that may say the most about the 2002 season: Georgia has converted seven of nine fourth-down attempts. This year, Georgia usually has delivered when it has needed the one yard it was denied at the end of the 2001 loss to Auburn.  

A team that has learned how to pick up the one big yard now is asked for one big win.

"When you're in a game like this, you have to simplify it down,'' said quarterback David Greene. "It's throw and catch. Don't make it more than it is.''

The most simplified approach came from tailback Musa Smith.

Said Smith: "We've just got to finish the drill.''

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