ATLANTA — For football fans in the state of Georgia, this is about as good as it gets.
Georgia Tech and Georgia battling for division titles in the college game. The Atlanta Falcons trying to take over first place in the NFL. All three teams at home for crucial games.
“This is a great time for the state of Georgia,” said coach Paul Johnson, whose 20th-ranked Yellow Jackets kick off the Peach State’s football nirvana when they host No. 10 Virginia Tech on Thursday night.
At stake, in all likelihood, is the inside track to a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
But that’s just the beginning. On Saturday, No. 14 Georgia has a game with similar high stakes between the hedges, taking on No. 24 Auburn in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry. The Bulldogs control their own fate in the Southeastern Conference’s East Division, needing to win their next two games to lock up their first trip to the title game since 2005.
Still got room on your plate for one more big game?
Come Sunday, the Falcons, riding a three-game winning after a sluggish start, take on their biggest rival, the New Orleans Saints, with first place on the line in the NFC South.
“Plus,” Johnson added, “you’ve got the high school playoffs.”
Oh yeah, the opening round of the prep postseason begins Friday night at stadiums around the state.
“When you throw that in there, you’ve got some pretty good football every night,” Johnson said.
Let’s run it down:
— Georgia Tech is coming off an upset of then-No. 6 Clemson, which propelled the Yellow Jackets (7-2, 4-2 ACC) back into prime position in the Coastal Division.
If they can knock off another Top 10 team, they’ll be in strong position to clinch a trip to the title game with a win over lowly Duke the following week. Virginia is still in the mix as well, but the Cavaliers would have to win their final three games — no small feat when they still have a trip to Florida State and the traditional season finale against their state rival Hokies.
— Georgia (7-2, 4-2 SEC) started the season 0-2, turning up the heat on embattled coach Mark Richt. But the Bulldogs haven’t lost since, climbing into first place with their longest regular-season winning streak in six years. Now at the top of the division standings after South Carolina’s loss to Arkansas last weekend, they’ll be headed to the SEC championship game without any more help if they can beat Auburn and follow up with a win over Kentucky the following week, also in Athens.
— The Falcons (5-3), like Georgia, started slowly. Touted as a Super Bowl contender, they lost three times in the first five games against the toughest part of their schedule. But Atlanta turned things around with a win over Cam Newton and Carolina, knocked off high-flying Detroit and blitzed winless Indianapolis 31-7 this past Sunday, setting up a showdown with the Saints.
Falcons coach Mike Smith has his own team to worry about, but he has noticed the success of the state’s two college programs.
“With Georgia right down the road, I know Mark is having a great season. They’re on a roll. We’d like to put a streak together like they have,” Smith said. “I have watched Paul this season as well and happened to get a chance to watch the game they played against Clemson because we were on our bye week.”
Georgia Tech, which has struggled to fill Bobby Dodd Stadium, is looking for another big crowd to turn out for its prime-time game with the Hokies. A sellout of 55,000 was on hand for the 31-17 shocker over Clemson, and thousands stormed the field after the game, celebrating with the players.
“When you run out onto the field and the stadium is packed and the crowd is into it, you can feel the atmosphere,” Johnson said. “When things started going well and the fans got behind ‘em, they feed off that. Whether you talk about it a lot, you know it’s there. It’s fun to play, it’s fun to be out there when that’s going on.”
The Bulldogs won’t have any trouble filling 92,000-seat Sanford Stadium, certainly not for their traditional game against Auburn. The teams first played in 1892, and this will be their 115th meeting.
“I know that the players all understand what is at stake,” Richt said. “We are in better position now and do control our own destiny.”
A sellout crowd of about 70,000 is expected for the Falcons game against the Saints. When Smith came to Atlanta in 2008, it didn’t take him long to figure how important this game is to the fans in each city. The teams came into the league just one year apart in the 1960s and they’re used to facing each other twice a season.
“I found out real quickly by traveling down to New Orleans for our first trip down there that it is a heated rivalry. Very heated,” Smith said. “That makes it fun for the fans. It makes it fun for the cities. But for us, we’ve got to stay focused on what we need to get accomplished and on what we need to do. We’re going to approach it no different than any other week.”
Of course, this is hardly just another week.
For the Peach State, this is about as good as it gets.