Georgia coach Mark Richt smiles while being congratulated by fans after Saturday's romp of Auburn
ATHENS — Two weeks into the season, Georgia appeared headed for another disappointing year.
Well, look where the Bulldogs are now.
One win from celebrating a division championship.
After a dominating victory over Auburn, No. 13 Georgia merely needs to beat lowly Kentucky next Saturday to wrap up the Southeastern Conference East. That would send the Bulldogs into a likely matchup against No. 1 LSU for the league championship on Dec. 3 in Atlanta, a scenario that would've seemed beyond farfetched back in early September.
The season started with an ugly loss to Boise State, then a sloppy setback to South Carolina. Considering the Bulldogs already were coming off their first losing year since 1996, the situation looked especially bleak.
They haven't lost since, extending their winning streak to eight in a row with a 45-7 blowout of the defending national champions.
"I'm trying to think of another game where we played this well in a situation that was so important to us," said coach Mark Richt, who no longer has "embattled" as an additional title. "We had tremendous execution."
He'll get no argument from Auburn, which took its worst loss in the Deep South's oldest rivalry since 1946. The Bulldogs (8-2, 6-1 SEC) raced to a 35-7 lead by halftime and outgained the Tigers (6-4, 4-3) by a staggering margin in total yards, 528-195.
This was one of the most complete performances by a Richt-coached team in years, rekindling memories of the success Georgia had early in his coaching tenure.
The Bulldogs won two SEC titles and a division crown over his first five seasons. Since then, the biggest highlight was a No. 2 final ranking in 2007, even though the team didn't even win the East.
The next season, Georgia started out No. 1 in the nation with a team featuring future first-round draft picks Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green, only to get routed by both Alabama and Florida — signaling a definite changing of the guard in the conference hierarchy.
The record slipped again in 2009, then came a 6-7 debacle last season.
All forgotten now.
Building off an impressive recruiting class, the youthful Bulldogs — only six seniors started against Auburn — have taken advantage of a favorable schedule and improved steadily during their winning streak. The victory over Auburn, ranked No. 24 coming into the game, was their first over a Top 25 team in nearly two years.
"We've got great depth and it's all starting to show late in the season," said Carlton Thomas, one of two Georgia backs who rushed for more than 100 yards against Auburn. "I'm really excited to see where we'll end up in January."
While LSU still has some work to do to wrap up the West, several Auburn players were asked to assess the most likely matchup in the SEC championship game. The Tigers fared dismally against both teams, losing to LSU by a similar score, 45-10.
Auburn receiver Emory Blake said the contrasting offenses — Georgia is more of a passing team, while LSU relies heavily on the running game — should make for an interesting matchup. Quarterback Clint Moseley, who struggled against both teams, was impressed by what he saw on the other side of the line.
"They both know how to play defense, that's for sure," said Moseley, who was sacked five times by the Bulldogs. "As far as making a prediction or anything, it's going to be a good game. Let's just say that."
The Bulldogs have shown impressive balance on offense, even after losing Green from last year's team. Over the last two weeks, they have scored 15 touchdowns — by 14 players. Only Michael Bennett has doubled up on reaching the end zone.
"I was really hoping we'd continue to improve as the season rolled along," Richt said. "The guys are gaining more confidence and they're playing smart."