ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs are back at home, eager to prove they're still one of the best teams in the nation.
But these are strange times between the hedges.
For the first time since 2016, the No. 13 Bulldogs are no longer in control of their own fate.
Two Southeastern Conference losses took care of that.
“It's definitely a little bit different,” punter Jake Camarda said. “At least for me, this is the first season where it's really not in our hands.”
Georgia (4-2) plays at Sanford Stadium for the first time in six weeks when it hosts Mississippi State (2-4) Saturday night.
Since its last home game, a 44-21 victory over Tennessee on Oct. 10, Georgia has taken double-digit losses to SEC powerhouses Alabama and Florida.
To have any shot of getting back to the SEC championship game for the third year in a row, Georgia would need to win out and hope the sixth-ranked Gators somehow lose two of their last four games — highly unlikely with a remaining schedule against teams that are a combined 7-17.
“I'm just going to go hard to improve as a player,” defensive lineman Malik Herring said. “I'm trying to push everybody else to get better, too. No slacking. We don't want to get embarrassed on TV. We've got to make each other go hard.”
For Mississippi State, the SEC's other Bulldogs, the season began with such promise under first-year coach Mike Leach.
The “Air Raid” offense wiped out defending national champion LSU in the season opener, but hasn't shown much flight since then.
Mississippi State has managed a single victory — over winless Vanderbilt — in its last five games, averaging a mere 7.5 points in the losses. Leach's team was shut out by Alabama and held to a safety by Kentucky while throwing six interceptions.
Now, Mississippi State has to face another of the league's traditional powers.
“Veteran, big, physical," Leach said. "I think that kind of covers it. And then, you know, (they) play with a certain amount of passion, aggression, obviously one of the better teams in the league.”
Some other things to watch for when the Bulldogs face the Bulldogs:
Georgia could be going with its third starting quarterback of the season, turning to former Southern Cal signal-caller J.T. Daniels.
The Bulldogs have struggled to get going offensively, ranking 11th in the SEC in passing yardage (209.33 per game).
D'Wan Mathis started the opener at Arkansas but was replaced by former walk-on Stetson Bennett, who started the last five games. Mathis got another crack two weeks ago against Florida after Bennett completed just five of 16 passes for 78 yards, also sustaining a shoulder injury that limited his effectiveness.
Daniels has yet to take a snap for Georgia, but it seems likely that he will finally get his shot.
“You have to put the best guys out there that give you the best opportunity to win," said coach Kirby Smart, who declined to announce a starter. "That’s what we have always done.”
Leach, who formerly coached in the Pac-12 at Washington State, remembers Daniels from his his time with the Trojans.
“Good player, throws the ball well,” Leach said. “I was impressed with him.”
K.J. OR WILL?
The quarterback situation is much the same at Mississippi.
Although it has become a weekly question, Leach won’t say whether freshman Will Rogers or graduate transfer K.J. Costello will start at quarterback.
Rogers played against Vanderbilt in place of the injured Costello and completed 35 of 46 passes for 226 yards and a TD. Leach was hopeful that Costello has recovered from a head injury sustained in a loss at Alabama.
EXTRA TIME OFF
Both teams were scheduled to play last week, but their games were postponed because of the pandemic.
Mississippi State has endured a string of player defections and opt-outs along with an outbreak of positive tests that left the team below the required minimum of 53 scholarship athletes, forcing its game against Auburn to be pushed back to Dec. 12.
Georgia was supposed to play at Missouri, but positive tests and contact tracing within the Tigers program also forced a postponement.
“It is tough,” Georgia offensive lineman Ben Cleveland said “We had no idea we weren't going to be able to get to play. You've just got to make it about yourselves, do whatever we can do to prepare ourselves no matter who we're playing or when we're playing.”
The game features defenses ranked second and third in the SEC.
Georgia has allowed 345.7 yards per game, while Mississippi State is next on the list at 359.8. Both teams are also good at getting off the field, ranking near the top of the conference in stopping third-down conversions.
Mississippi State hasn't beaten Georgia in Athens since a 19-7 victory in 1956.
Since then, Georgia has won 10 straight meetings at Sanford Stadium, including a 31-3 blowout in 2017.