When getting there is not good enough

AUBURN, Ala. -- Mark Richt actually injured himself a year ago when his team turned its locker room floor into a makeshift Slip’N Slide while wildly celebrating a win against Kentucky that clinched the SEC East title.

In contrast, Richt’s demeanor after Saturday’s 38-0 win against Auburn -- which secured the division championship for the second straight season -- seemed almost as if he had just attended a wake. The difference, he said, is that the fifth-ranked Bulldogs (9-1, 7-1 SEC) can’t be satisfied with simply returning to Atlanta for another SEC championship game.

“We had fun celebrating the victory and winning the East, but I think there was a little different feeling in everybody’s spirit that Atlanta is not the end of the road, we hope,” said Richt, Georgia's head coach.

The hope, instead, is that the Bulldogs’ larger goals remain within reach. Not just the program’s first SEC championship since 2005, but a spot in the BCS championship game in Miami.

That is where the team placed its focus before the season and it remains a reasonable goal with only two regular-season games remaining. But first the Bulldogs must post wins against Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech and then defeat the SEC West champion -- most likely defending BCS champ Alabama, which lost on Saturday for the first time this season, but can clinch the division with a win of its own against Auburn -- in Atlanta to even remain in consideration for a spot in the big game.

Oh, and at least two of the three remaining undefeated teams -- Oregon, Notre Dame and Kansas State -- must lose somewhere along the line, as well. Just like top-ranked Alabama did on Saturday.

“We’re not worried about that,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “We’re going to take it one week at a time and whoever comes to Atlanta, we’ll face whoever, so we’re ready to go.”

That businesslike approach helped the Bulldogs recover from a humiliating 35-7 loss to South Carolina at midseason, which at the time seemed to push Georgia out of the SEC and BCS conversations. The Gamecocks dropped their next two games, allowing Georgia to slip back into the driver’s seat in the division, and the Bulldogs never stopped winning.

Now they will return to Atlanta for the fifth time in Richt’s 12 seasons at Georgia.

“We felt like we were going to be here in the beginning of the season,” senior receiver Tavarres King said. “We felt like we were just going to have an opportunity to play in the SEC championship and after that loss to South Carolina, it was a blow to us, but we felt like things were going to work out and we were going to get back here.

“God is good. We’re back in it and we’ve got some work to do if we’re going to beat Alabama. I’m just excited about the opportunity we have.”

Nobody in Georgia’s locker room seemed to get too carried away with the win against Auburn, however, even if it did punch the Bulldogs’ ticket to Atlanta. Richt said the remembrance of the last season’s appearance in the game was enough to bring his players back down to earth.

“I don’t want to belittle it in any way, shape or form winning the East because it’s a big deal,” Richt said. “There are six other teams in the Eastern Division. It’s very difficult to get in the position to go back to Atlanta, but I just think we really feel like since we were there last year and didn’t do very well -- we played a good first half and we just didn’t do much the second half -- we just want to play better. We want to have a better performance when we get there.”

The Bulldogs jumped out to a 10-0 lead and were up 10-7 at halftime in last season’s SEC championship game, but top-ranked LSU buried them in the second half with a 42-10 victory.

That’s why Richt said his team still has unfinished business in Atlanta -- business that it absolutely has to finish this season to retain any hope of reaching its national-championship goal.

“I feel like we need to be more prepared,” receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “Last year we started off good and didn’t end well. We had a lot of missed opportunities, as well. So we just need to take advantage of those opportunities and play hard the whole time.”

And then hope for another heaping helping of good fortune.