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Sunday May 29th, 2016 11:29AM

Improbably, Georgia in mix for national title

By The Associated Press
ATHENS -- Alabama was supposed to be the best team in the country. Then Oregon and Kansas State got all the hype. Now it's Notre Dame looking down at everyone else.

Plodding along quietly, barely noticed, is one other team that has a prime spot in the national championship race.

The Georgia Bulldogs.

Coach Mark Richt's squad moved up to No. 3 in The Associated Press poll on Sunday and the same spot in the BCS standings. That leaves only three teams in control of their own destiny: top-ranked Notre Dame, second-ranked Alabama - and Georgia.

The Bulldogs need to beat Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, then Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game to earn a shot at the big prize in Miami.

Richt is keenly aware of the hoopla that suddenly surrounds his team, so much so that he steadfastly refused to even address the national race on his weekly teleconference.

Asked for his reaction when both Oregon and Kansas State were beaten in stunning upsets Saturday night, Richt replied: "I was thinking we need to have a great week of preparation for Georgia Tech."

Someone else asked, in a slightly different way, about having a shot at winning it all.

"Right at this moment, all I can think about is Georgia Tech," the coach said.

Finally, as the line went quiet and reporters tried to figure out another way to ask the same question, Richt piped in.

"Does anybody want to talk about Georgia Tech?" he asked.

But there's no getting around the fact that everything has fallen into place for the Bulldogs (10-1), who haven't always looked impressive but kept winning games, enough to push them into the spot they needed.

Georgia has taken advantage of a soft schedule, padded with non-conference patsies such as Buffalo, Florida Atlantic and lower-division school Georgia Southern, which fell to the Bulldogs 45-14 on Saturday. Inside the SEC, Richt's team benefited from a juggling of the scheduling formula to account for the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M.

Instead of facing Alabama in the regular season, as they would have under the former 12-team format, the Bulldogs picked up Missouri. Their two crossover games from the opposite division were against Auburn (3-8) and Mississippi (5-6). Contrast that with their two major rivals from the SEC East, No. 6 Florida and 13th-ranked South Carolina, which both had to play No. 8 LSU.

South Carolina blew out Georgia 35-7 the first Saturday in October, but the Gamecocks dropped their next two games against LSU and Florida. The Gators also beat LSU, climbing to No. 2 in the rankings, only to be taken down in Georgia's most impressive victory of the season, a 17-9 defensive struggle in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Bulldogs' only other victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision team with a winning record came against Vanderbilt (7-4). They routed the Commodores 48-3.

Nevertheless, timing is everything in the BCS. Oregon and Kansas State fell right at the end of the regular season, with little time to recover, while Georgia has won five straight since the debacle at South Carolina.

"We obviously have goals and aspirations. We've had them since January," Aaron Murray said after throwing four touchdown passes in the win over Georgia Southern. "Let's just see what happens."

Besides, as Richt will continually stress this week, the Bulldogs won't have any chance of playing for the national title if they don't beat Georgia Tech (6-5), the longtime rival which would love nothing more than to ruin Georgia's national title hopes.

The Yellow Jackets score a lot of points with their option offense. They give up a lot of points, too. Georgia likely will have to win a shootout in its final game of the year at Sanford Stadium.

"You can't even think about (the BCS) until you handle the business in front of you," receiver Tavarres King said. "We can't think about that until we beat Georgia Tech. One game at a time. I know it's super cliche, but that's really the way it is."

The only issue Richt would address regarding the national polls was the lone first-place vote Georgia got in the coaches' rankings. Notre Dame was a unanimous choice in the AP poll.

"I'm glad you asked me that. I am not the person who voted for us," Richt said. "Somebody thought we were No. 1. I guess that's good. But it's really not all that important."

Remember, there's that game against Georgia Tech.

Richt wants to talk about nothing else.

"Right now, the only thing I'm really concerned about is playing Georgia Tech," he said, fending off one last attempt to get him to talk about that other thing everyone else is talking about. "We're trying to have a good game plan through the week. We're trying to slow down that offense and put some points on the board."

With that, there was nothing else to say.

"Thanks everyone," Richt said.

The phone line went dead.
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