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Rose Bowl matchup with Oklahoma standing in the way of Georgia’s date with destiny

Georgia tailback Nick Chubb (27) runs on the way to a touchdown in the second half against Mississip
Nick Chubb and the Bulldogs are trying to win Georgia’s second national title.
(Joshua L. Jones / Associated Press)

Every dog has its day.

Georgia fans have had to believe in that for decades.

Now the No. 3 Bulldogs sit at the precipice. They face No. 2 Oklahoma on Monday in the Rose Bowl, which serves as a semifinal in the College Football Playoff. The winner heads to Atlanta for next week’s national championship game.

The Sooners and their fans are accustomed to these moments. Oklahoma has won seven national championships and during the Bowl Championship Series era was runner-up three times. This is the Sooners’ second appearance in the semifinals under the CFP format.

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In Georgia, things haven’t been so peachy.

It has been 37 years since people in Athens celebrated the Bulldogs’ only national title. Seven Ugas — the school’s pugnacious mascot — have come and gone in that time. Since Georgia entered the Sugar Bowl ranked No. 1 and lost to No. 2 Penn State, 35 years have passed. That’s 245 in dog years.

“That’s crazy, I didn’t even think about it like that,” Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said. “That puts it all in perspective. It has been a while.”

That’s the general feeling from the Chattahoochee National Forest to the Florida state line, from Savannah on the Atlantic Coast to Columbus on the Alabama border. Another Sherman’s March would be required to find a Georgian rooting against “Them Dawgs.”

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“Everybody — the fan base, the team, the coaches, the whole state — thinks it’s time,” Ledbetter said. “It’s kind of meant to be.”

There are just a couple little things standing in the way — Oklahoma, for starters.

The semifinal matchup is a collision course of contrasts.

The Sooners (12-1) have swagger under the direction of quarterback Baker Mayfield. The Heisman Trophy winner directs the nation’s top offense. Mayfield revels in it, with trash talk and provocative antics.

The Bulldogs (12-1) are a bump-and-grind bunch. Their defense, led by Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith, ranks second against the pass and fourth overall. They are more smack than smack talk.

“You have to let your play on the field do the talking more so than your mouth,” Smith said.

The Bulldogs’ tag-team running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have ground several teams to mulch. The Sooners’ defensive players arrived with a chip after being cast as the 90-pound weakling in this matchup.

“That’s something that we have heard all year, so for us it goes in one ear and out the other,” Oklahoma linebacker Emmanuel Beal said. “You don’t get to this point without playing defense.”

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But the biggest difference is the pedigree. The Sooners have college football royal blood.

“The standard at Oklahoma is winning championships, winning conference championships and having a chance to compete for national championships and win those,” first-year coach Lincoln Riley said. He added that when he took over the program, “I wanted them to understand that standard wasn’t going anywhere.”

The Bulldogs, by comparison, are mutts.

The University of Oklahoma’s mascots, two ponies named Boomer and Sooner, made the trek to Pasadena for the 2018 Rose Bowl game. Two student groups, the RUF/NEKS and Lil’ Sis, care for them.

Georgia doesn’t fit historically with this year’s final four. The Sugar Bowl semifinal has Alabama — winner of four of the past eight national titles — playing defending champion Clemson.

That one title in 1980 hasn’t allowed Georgia to hob-nob with the SEC elite. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee have combined to win 11 national championships in the past 21 seasons.

Georgia has finished ranked in the top five by the Associated Press three times since 2002, but the Bulldogs never got to sniff the national championship game.

“It motivates us,” guard Isaiah Wynn said.

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“We’re sick and tired of hearing the glory days of the ’80s with the Dawgs,” tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “We’re ready to make our own mark, try to leave our own legacy.”

There was little indication that the Bulldogs would deviate from their history. Alabama occupied the top spot in the AP preseason poll with Georgia at No. 15. In between were No. 12 Auburn and No. 13 LSU.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, was ranked seventh and already thinking big. Sooner players had “ATL” T-shirts made up as reminders of where they intended to finish the season. It has been the topic of conversation since beating Auburn in the Sugar Bowl last season.

“You couldn’t go a day in the locker room without hearing someone saying, ‘ATL’, ” defensive end Ogobonnia Okoronkwo said.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, eased into the race. A 4-0 start included victories over Notre Dame and Mississippi State. Fans had seen fast starts before. Georgia won its first eight games in 2002 but watched Ohio State and Miami play for the national title.

Defensive back J.R. Reed said: “After those first couple of games, we were like, OK, we have something special.” He also knew “people still doubted us because they felt like we couldn’t win big games.”

Georgia appeared to confirm that with a loss at Auburn. It dropped the Bulldogs from No. 1 to No. 7 in the CFP rankings. The Bulldogs earned their way back into the top four by beating the Tigers, who had upset previously unbeaten Alabama, in the SEC championship game.

It was Georgia’s first conference title since 2005 and gave the Bulldogs the chance to fetch something that’s been out of reach for decades.

“Everyone wants us to get it done,” Ledbetter said. “Teams in the SEC are like, ‘It’s your time.’”

Well, maybe not every team. People in Alabama have other ideas.

“I’m definitively not going to sit here and compare us to Alabama,” Wynn said. “But I definitely believe that we’re changing the culture here at Georgia.”

Now they’re looking to add some bite to their bark.


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