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Sunday May 1st, 2016 7:41PM

Dogs hitting stride at just the right time

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Mark Richt was stunned.

During a break only minutes after Georgia scored its first touchdown early in Saturday night's game, Auburn fans suddenly cheered.

Richt said at first he didn't know what led to the roar from the home fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Then he realized the Auburn fans were cheering top-ranked Alabama's loss to Texas A&M.

"After a little bit of thinking, I thought that might have been it," Richt said with a smile.

The Alabama loss also could be big for No. 5 Georgia, though Richt said he didn't take time to consider the ramifications for his team.

"I didn't get too caught up in it," Richt said of the Alabama loss. "I really was most concerned about this one."

Richt's players followed his lead and kept their focus on Auburn. The result was the Bulldogs' most complete effort of the season in a 38-0 win that clinched Georgia's spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game, likely against Alabama, on Dec. 1.

With a little help, Georgia could have more on the line than its third SEC championship under Richt.

Georgia could move into the national championship picture if the Bulldogs keep winning, including in the SEC championship game, and more undefeated teams lose.

Richt said Sunday he hasn't talked with his players about possible national championship hopes.

"Quite frankly we're not doing that right now," Richt said. "We know we're playing in Atlanta. We know that's settled right now. We know there's a lot of work to do in the meantime."

Georgia (9-1, 7-1 SEC), which plays Georgia Southern on Saturday, is rolling with four straight wins.

Aaron Murray has returned to form after throwing three interceptions in Georgia's key 17-9 win over Florida. Since that game, Murray has passed for seven touchdowns with no interceptions in back-to-back wins over Mississippi and Auburn.

Murray completed 18 of 24 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns - all in the first half - against Auburn. Georgia led 28-0 at halftime. Murray led two more scoring drives in the third quarter then sat out the final 15 minutes.

"Aaron was very sharp," Richt said.

For the season, Murray has 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions.

Murray's play-action passes were set up by the running of freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley ran for 116 yards and a touchdown, including a long run of 49 yards. Marshall added a 62-yard scoring run and had 105 yards on only eight carries.

Georgia's overwhelming balance on offense and strong defense convinced most Auburn fans to leave in the third quarter.

"It was awesome," Murray said. "We looked up midway through the third quarter and I was like, `Man, we've got more fans here than they do right now.'"

Georgia fans celebrated a second straight trip to the SEC championship game, chanting "SEC! SEC!"

"It's a great feeling," said linebacker Jarvis Jones, who had two sacks, giving him 10 1/2 for the season.

Jones, a third-year sophomore in 2011, and other top underclassmen decided to return this season instead of entering the NFL draft. Jones said the players returned for another shot at the SEC title after losing to LSU in last year's conference championship game.

"We've been training all year for it," Jones said. "Everybody decided to come back and focus and put the work in. It started in the spring. The leaders on the team have been at the forefront, making sure everybody takes care of business. We've been reaching our goal every week."

Georgia qualified for its fifth SEC title game in 12 years under Richt after also making it in 2002-03, 2005 and 2011-12. Richt's teams won SEC championships in 2002 and 2005.
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