By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - Maybe when this season is over, perhaps after Georgia has just played in a major bowl that no one could have seen coming, Mark Richt will be able to sit down and try to figure out how the Bulldogs turned it all around.
The Bulldogs have won four in a row, climbed to No. 6 in The Associated Press rankings Sunday and put themselves in solid position for a BCS bowl invitation even if they don't get a chance to play for the Southeastern Conference championship.
Who could have imagined such a scenario after Georgia was blown out 35-14 by Tennessee? Who was even thinking about big-time bowl bids when the Bulldogs were on the verge of losing to Vanderbilt the very next week?
The Commodores appeared to be driving for the winning touchdown when they fumbled deep in Georgia territory. The Bulldogs quickly drove the other way, kicking a field goal on the last play for a 20-17 victory.
The Bulldogs haven't lost since.
``I do think that was defining moment in this season,'' receiver Sean Bailey said. ``From that play to this period of time, we're a different team.''
Richt expected his young team to be better at the end of the season than it was at the beginning, but the coach seems truly caught off guard by the inspired play over the past month.
Georgia defeated Florida for only the third time in 18 years, wore black jerseys in an emotional win over Auburn and clinched a tie for first in the SEC East with Saturday's 24-13 victory over Kentucky.
``I don't think I've slept since that Florida game. I've been so excited,'' Richt said. ``This is year seven for me, and it's never been like this.''
This is even better for Richt than 2002, when Georgia won its first SEC title in 20 years and finished No. 3 in the rankings. Even better than 2005, when the Bulldogs won another conference title.
And it all started with that Vandy game.
The Commodores were heading for the end zone when Darryl Gamble knocked the ball away and Dannell Ellerbe recovered at the Georgia 7. The Bulldogs drove into position for Brandon Coutu's 37-yard field goal as time expired.
``It's amazing what's happened since that point,'' Richt said. ``They were getting ready to finish us off.''
Now, Georgia (9-2, 6-2 SEC) heads into its regular-season finale at Georgia Tech still hoping for a chance to play in Atlanta on back-to-back weeks. The SEC championship game is at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 1, and either Tennessee or the Bulldogs will face top-ranked LSU.
Amazingly, Vandy was poised to help Georgia clinch the Eastern Division outright on Saturday, building a 24-9 lead over Tennessee heading to the fourth quarter in Knoxville. But the Vols rallied for a 25-24 victory, and they can clinch the East with a win this week at Kentucky.
Tennessee (8-3, 5-2) gained the tiebreaker over Georgia with its win back in early October.
``It wasn't until I was trying to get out of the locker room area of the stadium that my wife called to tell me what happened,'' Richt said Sunday. ``Yeah, it was disappointing. There's no doubt that we would absolutely love to play in the SEC championship game.''
At least there's still hope.
``If that was Tennessee's last game in league play, it probably would have hurt worse,'' Richt said. ``But we're always going to hold out hope that Kentucky can take care of business and give us that opportunity.''
Even if Georgia doesn't make it to the SEC title game, there's still a good chance the Bulldogs will be in the running for a BCS bid with a seventh straight victory over Georgia Tech.
``Our guys understand that,'' Richt said. ``They understand we'll be in a very good position to have a BCS opportunity if we win, regardless of what happens in the Kentucky-Tennessee game. And just playing Georgia Tech is plenty of motivation for our guys to get ready to play.''
Source: ncaafootball; Photo Credit: SEC Sports Media