ATLANTA -- So this is why Georgia fired Mark Richt.
When the title-starved Bulldogs unceremoniously dumped Richt two years ago, many criticized them for firing a coach who won an average of nearly 10 games per season and always seemed to do things the right way during his 15-year tenure.
But Georgia's controversial move wasn't as much about what it hadn't done under Richt as what it believed it could do under former player Kirby Smart.
Smart, who helped Alabama's Nick Saban win four national championships as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator, now has his alma mater two victories away from winning its first national title in 37 years.
The No. 6 Bulldogs routed No. 2 Auburn 28-7 in Saturday's SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which undoubtedly punches their ticket for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff, which will be announced Sunday.
In only his second season as Georgia's coach, Smart, a former UGA defensive back, guided the Bulldogs to a 12-1 record and their first SEC championship since 2005.
The Bulldogs avenged their only loss of the season -- an ugly 40-17 defeat at Auburn three weeks ago, in which they were thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball -- with a menacing defense, punishing running game and pinpoint passing from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm.
After falling behind 7-0 on Auburn's opening possession, Georgia took a 10-7 lead at the half and then took complete control in the third quarter. Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith turned the game with two critical fumble recoveries -- the first one stopped an Auburn scoring drive that might have given the Tigers a 14-0 lead in the first, the second led to Fromm's 7-yard touchdown pass to Terry Godwin that gave the Bulldogs a 21-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
By the time Georgia freshman tailback D'Andre Swift broke loose for a 64-yard touchdown run for a 28-7 advantage, the game seemed so far out of reach that the scoreboard operator at Mercedes-Benz Stadium prematurely posted a message congratulating the Bulldogs for winning the SEC championship -- with 10:34 left to play in the game.
Georgia is expected to make its first CFP appearance and it comes nearly five years to the day of its most gut-wrenching loss under Richt. In the 2012 SEC championship game at the razed Georgia Dome, the No. 3 Bulldogs lost to No. 2 Alabama 32-28 after UGA receiver Chris Conley caught a pass at the Crimson Tide's 5-yard line as time expired. Alabama advanced to the BCS National Championship Game, where it defeated Notre Dame 42-14 to win its third national title under Saban.
Georgia's chances of reaching the CFP this season seemed slim in the preseason, after the Bulldogs went 8-5 in Smart's first season as a head coach in 2016. Their chances seemed to diminish even more when they lost starting quarterback Jacob Eason to a season-ending knee injury on the first possession of a 31-10 win over Appalachian State in the opener. But Fromm, who enrolled at UGA in January, took over and seemed to get better every week.
Georgia won at Notre Dame 20-19 in Fromm's first start, then won seven more games before falling at Auburn when the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1. They recovered to rout Kentucky and Georgia Tech before Saturday's rematch against the Tigers.
Fromm completed 16 of 21 passes for 183 yards with two touchdowns against Auburn.
The Bulldogs would probably tell you revenge has never felt better.
It was a disappointing end for Auburn, which upset rival Alabama 26-14 in last week's Iron Bowl, but lost for the third time. With tailback Kerryon Johnson nursing an injured shoulder, Auburn's high-octane offense never seemed to get going after the first scoring drive.
Now the Tigers will have to wait to learn the fate of coach Gus Malzahn, who might be the top choice to fill Arkansas' coaching vacancy. Malzahn has three years left on a contract that pays him about $4.75 million annually.