|Mark Richt has gone from goat to hero in Athens. (US Presswire)|
ATHENS, Ga. -- For Georgia, this moment didn't seem possible, not even REMOTELY possible on the long trip home from Columbia, S.C., on Oct. 6.
Georgia had been taken to the woodshed in every conceivable fashion by Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks. The 35-7 score did not come close to describing how badly and how thoroughly Georgia had been beaten at Williams-Brice Stadium.
On that night Georgia wasn't contemplating a championship of any kind. The Bulldogs were just thinking about survival.
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Fans calling the postgame talk shows back in Athens wanted everybody fired -- and right then. Mark Richt, the head coach, was never going to win another big game. He wasn't tough enough, like Nick Saban. He wasn't mean enough, like Saban. He needed to go, and he needed to take his offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, with him.
Jarvis Jones was one of 13 NFL ready players at Georgia who decided to come back to school and pursue an SEC championship. But in the hours after that beat-down against the Gamecocks all of that seemed to be slipping away.
"It was a bad night," said Jones. "But when you get beat that bad all you can do is do everything you can to make sure you never feel that way again. We had to get our act together."
Since that miserable night in October Jones and the rest of the Bulldogs have made good on that promise. And now Georgia (11-1) is ranked No. 3 and within one game of playing for its first national championship since 1980, when Herschel Walker was a freshman.
There was a little formal business that Georgia had to take care of on Saturday but a formality was all it was as Georgia jumped out to a big lead at halftime and cruised to a 42-10 victory over state rival Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech (6-6), which is headed to next week's ACC championship game against Florida State, was powerless to stop a Georgia offense that scored more than 37 points for the fourth straight game.
"It was a fun day and we loved every minute of it," said Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson. "Now we've put ourselves in a position to do some really good things."
Georgia's postgame celebration was short-lived because afterward it was finally OK to talk about the elephant that has been in the room all week: The University of Georgia is getting ready to play its most consequential football game in 30 years. Georgia will face No. 2 Alabama, the defending national champion, in next week's SEC championship game in Atlanta where the winner is expected to advance to the BCS Championship game on Jan. 7.
"We knew we had the potential of having a very good football team when Jarvis came back and all of those other guys came back with him," said Richt. "We didn't know if that potential would come to fruition. But here we are. We have a chance to win the SEC championship and that's always a big deal. And we'll just see after that."
Georgia last played for the national championship in 1982 against Penn State in the Sugar Bowl, with the Nittany Lions winning to give Joe Paterno his first national title. The closest Georgia has been to a national title since was 2002, when the Bulldogs finished 13-1 behind Ohio State and Miami, and 2007, when they finished No. 2. Georgia was preseason No. 1 in 2008, Matthew Stafford's junior season. That team finished 10-3.
A week ago Georgia did not expect to be in this position. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 5 and just happy to be getting a shot at the SEC championship. But last Saturday night the entire college football landscape changed when No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon lost. Georgia rocketed up to No. 3 behind Notre Dame and Alabama and the possibilities left the Bulldog Nation downright giddy.
While Bulldog fans wanted to talk about this newfound opportunity to play for the crystal football, Richt would have none of it. This week he would discuss Tech, Tech and only Tech.
"I've just coached so long that I know you can't look ahead or you'll get beat," said Richt. "It's so dangerous. I can't let myself do that and thought our guys did a great job of focusing on the task at hand."
Now Richt, in his 12th season at Georgia, could take a moment to celebrate his fifth trip to the SEC championship game where he has won two championships (2002, 2005). This was also Richt's fourth team to win 11 or more games. Only nine teams in school history have won 11 games.
Aaron Murray, the junior quarterback from Tampa, Fla., also made some history on Saturday. With 215 yards passing and two touchdowns, Murray became the first quarterback in SEC history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in three straight seasons.
"He's sharp, but he's been sharp for most of the season," said wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. "He's our leader."
Richt was not ready to talk about Alabama, which has won two of the last three BCS national championships. But Jones said he and his defensive teammates were looking forward to the challenge.
"They are a great football team and we have a lot of respect for them," said Jones. "Hopefully they have a lot of respect for us. But when we play our game we think we can play with anybody. It is going to be a big-time football game and I think people are going to like it."
Watch The Tony Barnhart Show Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.