Stars align for Georgia's shot at title game

When Kansas State and Oregon both lost in a span of five minutes Nov. 17, the loudest cheers came from South Bend, Ind.

But did you hear the barking in Georgia?

Two big obstacles in the Bulldogs’ national title quest had been swept away, leaving a clear path to Miami. Take care of Georgia Tech and enter the SEC championship game for the right to play for the crystal football. While folks in Florida and Oregon swallowed their pride and rooted for Lane Kiffin and USC to beat Notre Dame on Saturday night, Georgia didn’t have to pay attention.

As soon as Mark Richt’s team finished a 42-10 walloping of Georgia Tech, it knew where it stood. Sunday’s BCS standings merely confirmed it comes down to No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama for the right to play No. 1 Notre Dame on Jan. 7 in Miami.

There are two ways to reach the title game in the pre-playoff era. Run the table, as Notre Dame has. Or lose once and get some help along the way, as Georgia has.

This fall, no one-loss team has had the stars align more than the Bulldogs.

Think about it: They got a break long before the season kicked off because their schedule didn’t include SEC West heavyweights Alabama and LSU. And while few knew it at the time, Georgia also benefited from not facing Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M.

The Bulldogs lost a game ugly -- 35-7 to South Carolina -- but lost it relatively early, too, on Oct. 6. They benefited from South Carolina losing its next two games, but never falling out of the top 15 in the polls.

After the South Carolina game, Georgia faced only one other major test in the regular season -- an Oct. 27 date with rival Florida. Although the Gators had the more impressive résumé, with wins against LSU and South Carolina, it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t beat Georgia. They didn’t, and the Bulldogs gained the tiebreaker and an easy path to the SEC East title.

The dreaded late loss claimed Oregon and Kansas State, while other potential title contenders such as LSU, Stanford, Texas A&M and even South Carolina all suffered two losses before the stretch run, knocking them out of the race. Alabama also had a late loss but, like Georgia, won the game it needed to win (LSU).

Florida still has a much stronger overall résumé than Georgia -- wins against Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State -- and a stronger average computer ranking (No. 2) than the Bulldogs (No. 4). But Georgia’s head-to-head win combined with its chance to beat the defending national champ in the SEC title game ends any debate.

It would be different if, say, Stanford hadn’t lost to Washington. Or if LSU had lost only to Alabama. Or if Texas A&M had beaten LSU. If Kansas State had lost in September and gone on to run the table, Georgia could be in trouble.

And what if Ohio State, the only other undefeated team in the FBS besides Notre Dame, had been eligible for postseason play? Although Georgia continues to get the nod ahead of the Buckeyes in the polls, the voting sentiment probably would be different if Ohio State didn’t have NCAA sanctions. So that’s a bit of good fortune, too.

Georgia shouldn’t apologize for any of this. You make your breaks in the BCS race, and Georgia handled its business after the South Carolina debacle. If the Bulldogs take down Alabama, still the standard-bearer in college football, they’ll merit a spot in Miami.

The latest BCS standings show the SEC and Pac-12 are locks for multiple BCS entries. While the ACC had a very rough Saturday, No. 13 Florida State and No. 14 Clemson remain in position to go to big bowls. It’s a big week for the MAC and the WAC, as both leagues have multiple teams in the standings.

But there’s no BCS drama entering the final week of the season. Notre Dame has punched its ticket to Miami. Alabama or Georgia will join the Irish.

Georgia has walked a fairly charmed path to this point. But the toughest step is next.