ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -- - 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 Saturday, then likely Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game Dec. 1 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 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 an FBS 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, the longtime rival which would love nothing more than to ruin Georgia's hopes.
The Yellow Jackets (6-5) score a lot of points with their explosive triple-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.
The Bulldogs have won three straight and 10 of 11 against Georgia Tech, scoring at least 30 points in each of the last five meetings. Murray threw four touchdowns in last year's 31-17 win in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech automatically claimed a spot in the ACC championship game Monday when Miami self-imposed a postseason ban for the second straight year, looking to lessen the sanctions from an NCAA investigation into its compliance practices.
It was a surprising twist for a Georgia Tech team that was routed at home by Middle Tennessee in September and fired defensive coordinator Al Groh at midseason.
"It's a great opportunity," coach Paul Johnson said. "I'm proud of our guys. They won four conference games in a row, two of them on the road. It's a case of persevering and just keep playing."
Though the defense continues to struggle, the Yellow Jackets have won three in a row overall. They defeated North Carolina 68-50 two weeks ago, knocked off Duke 42-24 last Saturday and are averaging 38.6 points per game - 16th nationally.
As usual, the run-oriented team ranks near the top of the country in rushing yards, as they're third at 324.9 per game behind Army and Air Force.
Georgia Tech will face Florida State on Dec. 1 for a spot in the Orange Bowl, but Johnson isn't worried about his players looking ahead.
"Our guys understand the importance of this game to our fans and our alumni and everyone involved," he said. "Besides that, Georgia's got a very talented football team. If you're not ready to play, you'll get embarrassed really fast."
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