Georgia-Mississippi State preview: Biggest meeting yet in a pseudo-rivalry
ATHENS, Ga. — They share a nickname and a league.
There's just not a whole lot of history between Georgia and Mississippi State.
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For the first time in what barely qualifies as a rivalry, the No. 11 Bulldogs (the Georgia version) and the 17th-ranked Bulldogs (that would be Mississippi State) are set to play a Southeastern Conference game that could have huge ramifications in the national race.
Never before have the schools squared off with both ranked in the Top 25.
In fact, they haven't faced each other much at all over the years.
Just 23 times — a rather perplexing lack of familiarity, given both were charter members when the SEC was founded in 1932.
They met for the first time in 1914 — State won 9-0 in Athens, nearly two decades before the founding of the SEC — and didn't play again until 1950. Since then, there have been infrequent games, usually in back-to-back years separated by long layoffs, with Georgia holding a 17-6 edge.
Georgia safety J.R. Reed was a high school sophomore the last time these teams met in 2011.
Even so, he won't have any trouble getting up for the game, given what's on the line.
"In the back of your mind, you know, 'Hey, this is the SEC,'" Reed said. "We've got to win if we want to go anywhere bowl game-wise and playoff-wise."
Mississippi State (3-0) surged into the rankings with a 37-7 blowout of then-No. 12 LSU last Saturday night in Starkville, a game that suddenly stamped Mullen's team as a potential championship contender. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald had a breakout performance, throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more.
Now he's going against the home-state school that passed on him after high school. Fitzgerald played at Richmond Hill, just outside of Savannah, but Georgia didn't think he had much of a future as a college quarterback.
Under Mullen's tutelage, he has become one of the most talked-about players in the country.
"It's the new-age quarterbacks," said Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith. "You've got to be able to use your feet and pass the ball. It's a different thing. It puts a lot of stress on the defense. The defense has to adapt to that. But I think we'll be able to do it."
Georgia (3-0) is off to a strong start in Kirby Smart's second season as coach. Its most impressive performance was a 20-19 victory at Notre Dame, the sort of statement game that Georgia lacked while stumbling to an 8-5 mark in Smart's debut year
A victory this week would be even bigger.
"Playing a team like this will tell us a lot," Smart said. "I'm not going to sit here and say we've arrived, because I don't think that's the case. I think we've improved. I think we have to continue to improve to beat the teams we have on our schedule."
Georgia has faced Mississippi State fewer than any of the other original members still in the SEC. For State, Vanderbilt (22 meetings) is the lone school with that distinction.
Georgia has played five other schools more often than the other Bulldogs, including Georgia Tech, former SEC member Tulane and current conference foe South Carolina, though most of those 64 meetings against the Gamecocks came before they even joined the league in 1992. Clemson and North Carolina also have been more frequent opponents.
It's much the same for Mississippi State, which has more history with Arkansas (an SEC member only since 1992) as well as Tulane, Southern Mississippi and Memphis.
Perhaps the oddest note in this pseudo-rivalry: Georgia and Mississippi State met twice (in 1959 and 1961) at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, then known as Grant Field. Both contests were part of doubleheaders in which the Yellow Jackets hosted Auburn in the other game.
The Dawgs will have the stage all to themselves Saturday night between the hedges.
No familiarity needed to realize this is a big one.
"There's just a little bit more excitement, a little bit more heart pounding," Reed said. "I'm ready to go."