Georgia at rarified heights, challenge is to finish No. 1

Sports

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart celebrates after a defensive stop during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia finds itself in a most unusual position.

No. 1.

For the first time since the 1982 season, when a guy named Herschel Walker starred at running back, the Bulldogs hold the top spot in The Associated Press rankings during the season.

Now, the challenge is to stay there.

“It’s just a number, right?” coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “I don’t see a plateau. The goal is to be number one at the end of the season. You always know that.”

Led by a ferocious defense that has allowed just two touchdowns and 26 points, the Bulldogs (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) climbed to No. 1 after defending national champion Alabama was upset by Texas A&M.

The Bulldogs were a unanimous choice in the AP poll.

Georgia hasn’t been top dog since the 2008 preseason poll, a spot they surrendered even after winning their opening game.

One must go back nearly four decades to find the last time the Bulldogs were No. 1 during the season.

In 1982, Georgia moved to No. 1 in early November after a 44-0 win over Florida and held that spot for the final two games of the regular season, setting up a 1-2 showdown with Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.

The Nittany Lions prevailed 27-23 to claim the national championship.

Georgia hopes to finish the job that long-ago team failed to complete, though its a much-different era. The regular season is now 12 games instead of 11. The SEC championship game provides another potential roadblock. And it takes two playoff victories to win a national championship.

“Everybody’s goal is there, but to have an opportunity to do that you have to be in the top four,” Smart told reporters at his weekly news conference. “That’s the most critical part. We won’t get caught up in that, let you guys write about it. That’s not a burden we carry. The burden we carry is how we play.”

Still, the No. 1 ranking carries plenty of gravitas.

As if to remind the Bulldogs where they are and what they’re chasing, former coach Vince Dooley — now 89 years old — attended Smart’s media briefing.

Dooley remains the only coach to guide Georgia to an undisputed national championship, way back in 1980.

There have been a few close calls since then.

Under Mark Richt, the 2002 Bulldogs finished No. 3 with only a single loss, an upset by Florida that ruined their national title hopes. Georgia made another run in 2007, also under Richt, but wound up No. 2 in the final AP poll.

Most notably, Smart led the Bulldogs to the national title game against Alabama at the end of the 2017 season. The Crimson Tide rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit and won 26-23 on Tua Tagovailoa’s walk-off, 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime.

The Bulldogs are only concerned with this season.

Sure, there’s plenty of excitement surrounding the No. 1 ranking, but Smart and his players insist they won’t get caught up in the hype — especially with a crucial game against No. 11 Kentucky (6-0, 4-0) coming up Saturday.

The winner of this game will be in prime position to capture the SEC East title.

“That drives me to keep it neutral, to keep it the same,” senior linebacker Adam Anderson said. “Don’t try and change it up, don’t try and be someone you’re not, don’t let being No. 1 influence how you play them. A lot of people get over their head a little. We don’t need to start playing different.”

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops praised the powerhouse that Smart has built during his six years in Athens.

“What Kirby has done there and the team that he has put together, you see why they’re ranked the number one team in the country and leading and dominating in the defensive statistical categories,” Stoops said. “And playing extremely well offensively. Will also hurt you at any given moment in special teams. They’re playing very well in all areas.”

The big question hanging over the Bulldogs is the status of No. 1 quarterback JT Daniels, who missed the last two games with a right lat injury.

It hasn’t been much of an issue so far. Senior Stetson Bennett did a solid job filling in and the defense ensured that neither game was close. Without Daniels, Georgia blew out Arkansas 37-0 and Auburn 34-10.

Smart wouldn’t say whether Daniels will be able to play against Kentucky.

“We are trying to get JT back,” Smart said. “We’ll look and see how he is and where he is. See what he can do. That’s always the case. I’m not getting into that. Right now, I’m making sure that we have a healthy quarterback and keeping our quarterbacks healthy, by keeping them upright and protected.”

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

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AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky contributed to this report.

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25

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