Since that afternoon in Atlanta back in 2012, Georgia has played 62 football games, winning 46. It has earned four bowl victories in five tries. It has won 18 rivalry games and lost 12. It has played as a top-10 team 22 times and as an unranked team 19 times.

The pendulum has swung both ways for Georgia since the 2012 SEC Championship Game, but the highs always seem to be followed by deflating lows. That’s why the Bulldogs haven’t competed for an SEC title the past four years.

When Georgia walks into Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, it’ll know what’s at stake. Players won’t be able to draw on experience from playing in that game five years ago, but they’ll know the history. Whether Kirby Smart admits it or not, he’ll know that Saturday isn’t just “the next game on the schedule.”

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Win Saturday, and the Dawgs’ stranglehold on No. 1 gets a little tighter. Take care of Auburn, and perhaps the Dawgs are all but in the College Football Playoff — with or without an SEC title. Beat a top-10 team on the road, and change the mindset of a fanbase that’s been disappointed in too many big games in recent memory.

So far, the 2017 season has been a Georgia fan’s dream. With each dominant victory, there seems to be less people asking “Is Georgia for real?” That question faded a bit in the latter part of the Dawgs’ 9-0 start. But heading into their biggest game in five years, there’s another question that everyone is asking.

Is Georgia ready for this moment?

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

History won’t determine Saturday’s outcome, but it’ll be on the minds of plenty of Georgia fans who have withstood the program’s breakthroughs and letdowns of the 21st century.

Few people understand that dynamic more than D.J. Shockley. The former Georgia quarterback led the Dawgs to the 2005 SEC Championship, he has watched them from afar as a proud alum, and he currently makes his living as an SEC Network analyst.

Shockley, perhaps as much as anyone, can appreciate the magnitude of what’s at stake for his alma mater.

“They played in some big games, but because of what’s on the line right now, yes, this is the biggest game since the 2012 SEC Championship,” Shockley said. “Everybody’s looking at you. They have a feeling that ‘Maybe this Georgia team is for real.’ But you can tell people are still a little hesitant because of the past history of Georgia in big games and not being able to come through in games like this.

“You’re No. 1 in the country playing a top-10 team in the SEC with national championship hopes on the line, and all of this with everybody looking at you. … I think it makes it one of the biggest games Georgia has (had) in the last 10 years…”

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Shockley is right. There are few moments in which teams have a chance to break from a longstanding narrative. The national narrative of 21st century Georgia is that it’s a good-but-not-great program. Would a loss to Auburn suddenly make this 2017 Georgia team less than great? It shouldn’t, but plenty would turn back to that narrative.

The other narrative at stake is even bigger than Georgia. Everyone knows that the SEC East hasn’t beaten the SEC West in Atlanta since Tim Tebow’s junior season at Florida.

Saturday’s Georgia-Auburn game isn’t an SEC Championship Game, but what about the narrative that the East can’t stack up with the West? Isn’t that more obvious than ever if Georgia can’t hang around with Auburn?

“If (Georgia) loses the game against Auburn and Alabama goes out and wins it again, that’s the narrative,” Shockley said. “Until you knock them off, the West is clearly better than the East right now.”

No one will argue that. What will be examined by the Playoff selection committee if Georgia loses is if it’s just been fortunate to play in the ever-weak East. Suddenly the Notre Dame win — the one the selection committee said is the single most important game of 2017 so far — doesn’t carry quite as much weight.

“They played in some big games, but because of what’s on the line right now, yes, this is the biggest game since the 2012 SEC Championship."
- Former Georgia QB and SEC Network analyst D.J. Shockley

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Some might argue that Georgia will be allowed a mulligan on Saturday. A loss now and a win against Alabama — or even Auburn — in the SEC Championship Game would still be enough to make the field. While that’s probably true, a loss Saturday — particularly a bad loss — would have the selection committee questioning Georgia’s one-loss credentials for the first time all year. Perhaps a chance at the No. 1 overall seed would be gone, too.

“They understand they’ve gotta have it, because without it, the résumé doesn’t look the same,” Shockley said. “You don’t get the same kind of due, if you lose this ballgame, for the rest of the year.”

But all of those narratives only surface if Georgia loses. Lord knows it hasn’t shown any signs of doing that yet. Against that lights-out defense and versatile rushing attack, nobody has found a way to exploit any Georgia weaknesses yet. You know, if there are any.

Opposing defenses have insisted that Georgia’s weakness is its passing game. With true freshman Jake Fromm under center, the Dawgs have attempted the fewest passes per game of any SEC team (they’ve also never trailed in conference play).

Still, Fromm leads the conference in passer rating. In his last three games, he has thrown for 623 yards (11.3 yards per attempt) and 5 scores while completing 69 percent of his passes. In his most recent showing, against South Carolina, he completed 16 of 22 passes for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns.

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“They understand they’ve gotta have it because without it, the résumé doesn’t look the same. You don’t get the same kind of due, if you lose this ballgame, for the rest of the year.”
- Former Georgia QB and SEC Network analyst D.J. Shockley

Shockley knows a thing or two about quarterback development. He’s seen plenty of that in Fromm the last month.

“I think that whole dynamic has changed now,” Shockley said of Fromm. “He’s shown that he can throw the football and that he can handle the magnitude of having to throw it more than 10 times in a game to help his team win. Having that run game and now adding Fromm to the mix where he can throw the football, and make some good decisions, that makes this team a lot different than it was a month ago.

“It makes them a lot better.”

Is it possible that 9-0 Georgia hasn’t played its best football yet? That question will be discussed Saturday and beyond, especially if the Dawgs pull one out at Auburn. If Georgia really is Alabama East, it’ll finish the season just as strong as it started it.

Saturday is all about Georgia proving that 2017 narrative true.

It’s true that Georgia hasn’t beaten a top-10 SEC team in a true road game since 2006 when it thumped No. 5 Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. But that day, the Dawgs weren’t even ranked. The last time they knocked off a top-10 SEC team on the road as a top-10 team themselves was in 2005 when Shockley led the charge to a 27-14 win at No. 8 Tennessee.

He, like many others, has seen this movie before. But this time, he sees a different ending.

“I think Georgia probably wins this game by 7-10 points,” Shockley said. “I know … they’re playing against a good defense, but I think they win somewhere around 28-20 or something like that.

“We’ll see.”

Oh, we shall.