ATHENS, Ga. — It's hard to keep the Georgia defenders from talking.
They're on a mission, one that started the moment they walked off the Georgia Dome field at the end of the 2011 Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
The Bulldogs held a 10-7 halftime lead over top-ranked LSU before it all unraveled in a flurry of third-quarter mistakes that resulted in a 42-10 loss that send the Tigers to the BCS National Championship Game and the Bulldogs whimpering to the Outback Bowl.
"We didn't do so bad against LSU last year," Georgia nose tackle John Jenkins said. "Granted, we didn't play 60 minutes. It just goes to show that we need to make the minor adjustments this time and play for 60 minutes."
The third-ranked Bulldogs feel they're a different team this year, one that has grown after a 6-7 season in 2010 and an 0-2 start in 2011, one that is ready to add their name to the list of Southeastern Conference teams that have won a national championship in the last decade.
"It's a big difference because you know what to expect," Bulldogs linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. "You know not to let your emotions overwhelm you and I think that's what happened to us last year. We had played in a few big games but no big game like the SEC Championship (Game) last year."
Georgia coach Mark Richt said his players are "hungry for some more and we just want to have a better performance than we had a year ago in Atlanta."
When confronted with comments made by safety Bacarri Rambo on Saturday that Georgia had better players than Alabama and by cornerback Sanders Commings on Monday that the Bulldogs were "the best defense in the country," Richt noted, "I don't think it's going to matter much what everybody says before the game."
These Bulldogs are brash, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. While they rank 11th in the conference in rushing defense, second behind Alabama in passing defense and sixth in total defense, it's not reflective of the unit that has rebounded from a lackluster start with a strong finish in its last five games.
"We're showing up now at the right time and we're hungry and we've got something to prove," linebacker Christian Robinson said.
"Before the Florida game, everybody thought we couldn't win the big game. Well, we did that. We can mark that off and move on to something else. Like win a championship."
Since losing to South Carolina 35-7 and struggling to a 29-24 win at hapless Kentucky a week later, the Dawg defenders have surrendered an average of 296.4 total yards (which would rank among the nation's top 10 defensive units) and 139.2 passing yards (which would easily be the best).
Granted, those performances have come against teams that can't throw (like Georgia Southern and Florida) and teams that can't score (like Auburn), but it's the confidence and chemistry of the Georgia defense that has its players convinced it will be the best defense on the field today in its battle with second-ranked Alabama.
"Their defense has been tops in the country for the past couple of years," cornerback Damian Swann said. "Last year, we were right up there with them. This year, I still think we match up with them. Statistically, a couple of games we didn't look good but we won and now we're getting back to the Georgia defense we know we can be."
The Bulldogs solidified their defense by starting Garrison Smith at defensive end, true freshman Jordan Jenkins at outside linebacker and Alec Ogletree at inside linebacker (while alternating former starters Michael Gilliard and Herrera). Now, they believe they're ready to play with the best.
"We know we're just as good as them, if not better," Swann said. "We had a couple of games where we didn't play too hot, but we've played just as good as them. Against Ole Miss, we did just as good as they did. This week is the challenge we need. And I think we'll step up to it."
By facing the challenge, the Bulldogs hope to erase the demons of 2011 and prove they're ready to finish the mission they started last year in Atlanta.
For the guys who did make the trip last year and came up a little short, they tasted the SEC Championship (Game) but didn't get the whole effect of it," redshirt freshman tight end Jay Rome said. "So I really feel like that taste was left in the mouths of a few of those guys last year and they've had that in the back of their minds for a whole year. They want to get back and finish the drill."
Herrera said today is "all or nothing" and added, "We have more at stake this year. That's our goal each year, to make it to the national championship. And that's been one of our main goals this year, to make it to Miami."
If the Bulldogs can make it to Miami and beat Notre Dame, they can add their name of SEC teams that have used the SEC Championship Game as a springboard to the national title — LSU, Florida, Auburn and, of course, Alabama.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't be (playing for a national title)," Swann said. "We have the players, we recruit the same guys everybody else (in the SEC) is recruiting. We've lost some games we shouldn't have lost and that just comes with playing in this conference.
"You're playing against the best every week so you have to come with your best. I think this team is way more confident and has way more swagger than last year and I think that's what is going to help us in the challenge this week. We've got to go in and play like we're the best team on the field."
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