ATHENS, Ga --
Even in this world of Twitter, Facebook and countless message boards in which college athletes live, the Georgia Bulldogs expressed surprise -- almost indignation -- that anyone would even think they'd be caught looking past Georgia Tech to a show-down with Alabama.
Certainly, they gave no indication Saturday of losing focus. Malcolm Mitchell's 46-yard kickoff return to open the game set the tone. Four plays later, Georgia had the lead before it had ever faced even a second down. Three hours later, the Bulldogs strode off the Sanford Stadium field with a 42-10 victory that was both statistically baffling and mercifully closer than it could have been.
"We had people talking to us all week about if we were worried about looking ahead," said Georgia
head coach Mark Richt. "Were you worried about this, that or the other. I didn't see any signs of that. Our players understand how important this game is to our team to our families and to our coaches. I thought they did a very good job of staying focused. I never had a moment where I was thinking ahead. I just know that's so dangerous. I've coached long enough to where I can't even let myself do that."
Oh, make no mistake: Everyone involved in the Georgia program, from Richt to his assistants to his players, knew the stakes. How could they not? Upset losses by Kansas State and Oregon the week before restored their opportunity to play for a national championship. They went into Saturday's game ranked No. 3 in the BCS, right behind Alabama.
The Dogs had already clinched a spot in the SEC championship game. A victory over Alabama would guarantee them a spot in the BCS championship game. That is, if they beat Georgia Tech. That horrible 35-7 loss to South Carolina midway through the season effectively put them in the losers bracket.
"You have to funnel it back to being focused on this game," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "The most important thing last week was being Georgia Tech. Now that we're done with that, it's on to the next game."
Which just so happens to be Saturday in Atlanta against Alabama.
For the SEC championship.
And a shot at the national championship.
Saturday's win was a statistical anomaly. Tech won most of the benchmark statistics: time of possession (39:56-20:04), first downs (26-18) and total offense (426-379 yards). But that's largely due to the fact that all six of Georgia's touchdown drives took less than three minutes.
Three of the first four scoring drives took fewer than five plays. Much of the Dogs' time of possession was spent by quarterback Aaron Murray standing in the pocket unbothered. Only three of Murray's 17 passes fell incomplete, and two of those came after receiver Tavarres King fell down.
It would have been worse, but the Dogs had mercy on the Yellow Jackets in the fourth quarter.
There will be no more worries about looking ahead. First of all, the Dogs will be facing Alabama, still widely considered the best team in college football. The Dogs scored 80 points against their two oldest rivals, Auburn and Georgia Tech. But they know facing the Crimson Tide's defense will be a different story.
But as distracting as playing for a national championship might be, the Dogs know that just winning the SEC, as Richt said, "stands alone as a very important event."
"To win our league any year is huge, and that means a lot to us," Richt said. "Anything beyond that will be decided by the voters and that kind of thing. That's something very exciting to think about. But again, SEC championships are hard to come by. We're excited about the chance to do that."
Gratham has faced Alabama coach Nick Saban once before -- in 2005 in the NFL. Grantham was the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator; Saban, the Miami Dolphins head coach. The Browns won 22-0.
"I've got a lot of respect for Nick," Grantham said. "They've got a good scheme. They've got good coaches, good players. But we're going to be ready to play."
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org