ATHENS, Ga. — When Oregon and Kansas State both went down, Aaron Murray whooped it up as much as any Georgia fan.
He knew what that meant for the Bulldogs – a shot at the national championship.
“I’ve never screamed so much at the television and prayed so much in my life,” Georgia’s star quarterback said Tuesday. “It was definitely an exciting night. We were screaming, high-fiving, hugging, group hugs. It was a lot of fun.”
Funny thing, though. Outside of this state, hardly anyone is talking about the Southeastern Conference’s other title contender.
Instead, everyone is gushing about the possibility of two storied programs – Notre Dame and Alabama – playing for No. 1.
Georgia, it seems, is just an afterthought.
“We don’t mind being the underdogs,” Murray said. “We know what we have to do, and that’s win games. If we do that, we’ll be good to go.”
Indeed, while it may appear the third-ranked Bulldogs are trying to sneak in the back door, they have exactly the same path to the championship as the top-ranked Fighting Irish and second-ranked Crimson Tide.
Win out. Win it all.
For Georgia, it starts with Saturday’s regular-season finale against state rival Georgia Tech (6-5). The Bulldogs have won 10 of 11 in the series and are a two-touchdown favorite to extend that domination against the high-scoring Yellow Jackets. Still, coach Mark Richt is working hard to ensure his team doesn’t get caught looking ahead to the SEC championship game against Alabama the following week.
He’s gone to some rather extreme measures to keep the one-game-at-a-time mentality. Richt refuses to even say whether he was watching last Saturday night when Kansas State got blown out by Baylor and Oregon lost in overtime to Stanford, allowing Georgia to jump to No. 3 in the BCS standings.
If anyone tries to bring up Alabama or the BCS, Richt won’t even respond.
“I had to hang up on my mom,” he said, only half-joking.
Richt insists there’s been no discussion with his staff about what might happen beyond the Georgia Tech game, and he said there’s no need to remind his players it’s business as usual.
“We meet every day to talk about how we’re going to handle the week: who we’re playing next, what kind of challenges they bring, what we’re going to do on a daily basis to get ready for them,” Richt said. “That’s all we do.”
After Saturday, the picture could be even clearer.
Notre Dame (11-0) is favored by a touchdown against disappointing Southern Cal, which will be further hampered by the absence of star quarterback Matt Barkley. He won’t play because of a sprained right shoulder, forcing the Trojans to give freshman Max Wittek his first career start. Alabama (10-1) opened as a 33-point pick over hapless Auburn, which is winless in the SEC and wrapping up its worst season in decades.
If all three favorites win, Notre Dame is assured of a spot in the Jan. 7 BCS championship game in Miami. The SEC title game between Alabama and Georgia (10-1) would essentially serve as a national semifinal.
Of course, nothing is assured in this sport.
Just ask Oregon and Kansas State.
“Not to get negative,” said Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson, pondering the idea of losing to the Yellow Jackets with so much on the line, “but it could be horrible. It could be everything we didn’t want this season to be about. People would pile on everything negative they could think about us.
“We have an opponent coming here that probably hates us more than any other opponent. And it’s probably mutual.”
It’s stunning that Georgia (10-1) had clawed its way into this position considering what happened on Oct. 6.
The Bulldogs rolled into South Carolina for a crucial game between two unbeaten teams – and got blown out. They were behind 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and lost 35-7, scoring a meaningless touchdown in the closing minutes just to avoid a shutout.
According to STATS LLC, no team that has finished No. 1 in The Associated Press poll or claimed the Bowl Championship Series title with such a lopsided loss on its record. The worst defeat by a champion came in 1983, when Miami dropped its opener to Florida 28-3 but rebounded to win its last 11 games, including an upset of then-No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Georgia dropped to No. 14 in the AP poll after the debacle in Columbia, which most thought was too far back to have any shot at No. 1. But the Bulldogs bounced back with five straight wins, most notably a 17-9 triumph over Florida, and kept climbing as one unbeaten team after another fell in defeat.
“After South Carolina, especially, we had to take a step back and realize that we can control our future,” tight end Arthur Lynch said. “We haven’t looked ahead.”
Now, even though the Bulldogs are one of just three teams that controls its own destiny, they’re not breaking from the philosophy that has served them well.
So this week, it’s all about Georgia Tech.
“No matter what the records are, or what’s happening, nothing changes the fact that if we lose to them, it’s a living hell for the next 365 days,” Lynch said. “It’s what fuels me and gets me motivated. If you’re not motivated for this game, you probably shouldn’t come to Georgia. You always have to beat Tech.”