By PAUL NEWBERRY
The Associated Press
ATHENS, Ga. — The chatter started not long after South Carolina was upset at home by Auburn. It picked up steam when Florida was blown out by Alabama.
Texts, tweets, phone calls — all carrying the same message.
Georgia was back in the race.
Since starting 0-2, the Bulldogs have ripped off three straight wins. More important to their hopes, both South Carolina and Florida lost this past weekend to put the Southeastern Conference East up for grabs.
Coach Mark Richt noticed an extra bounce in his team's step returning to practice this week, the players fully aware that Georgia is now in a three-way tie for first place. The Bulldogs also appear to have the easiest schedule the rest of the way, though Saturday's game at Tennessee could be troublesome if the last two trips to Knoxville — which both ended in routs by the Vols — are any indication.
Still, there's no doubt the mood between the hedges has improved dramatically. A program that was spending a good bit of its time addressing Richt's future now feels it has a legitimate chance to reach the SEC championship game.
"We knew what kind of team we have. We saw the potential, we saw the talent. We just had to clean up a couple of things here and there," quarterback Aaron Murray said Tuesday. "We're feeling great. We feel like we're moving in the right direction."
Even after the season began with losses to Boise State and South Carolina, Richt insisted that all was not lost. He said it might be the two toughest games Georgia would face all season. The Bulldogs (3-2, 2-1 SEC) have had a much easier time of it the last three weeks, knocking off Coastal Carolina, Mississippi and Mississippi State, none of the games closer than two touchdowns.
After beating State 24-10 last Saturday, Georgia's players and coaches spent the evening watching Auburn rally for a 16-13 victory over the Gamecocks, then Alabama romp past the Gators 38-10. Compounding Florida's problems, starting quarterback John Brantley hobbled off the field with an gruesome-looking leg injury.
In Athens, no one was happy about seeing a rival player hurting. But they sure were smiling about those scores.
"The face that South Carolina and Florida lost is definitely a motivating factor for everybody," Richt said. "As it was happening, guys are texting each other, coaches are texting each other. Everybody certainly got excited about how the standings are sitting right now compared to how it was a week ago. We all know it's crucial to take care of our business, because if we don't it's not going to be that much fun anymore."
The Bulldogs haven't had a whole lot of fun on their last two trips to Tennessee. In 2007, the Vols raced to a 28-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 35-14 victory. Two years ago, in Lane Kiffin's only season guiding the Big Orange, the rout was even more resounding, 45-19.
"I haven't looked at those games lately, but I know we started poorly," Richt said. "The thing I didn't like in both those games ... was it looked like they beat us to the point where we gave in. It's hard to fight when you're so far down, but I don't know that we fought for the full 60 minutes. That's what happens when you get behind in a place like that."
For defensive end Abry Jones, the soundtrack from the 2009 debacle still rings in ears. He can't forget the Tennessee fight song "Rocky Top" — playing over and over as the Vols ran up the score.
"That annoying song," Jones said, followed by a long sigh. "I know we got beat pretty bad, but what sticks with me the most is that song. I hope we don't hear it as much when we go up there this time."
Tight end Aron White is aware that playing in front of 100,000 fans — most of them cheering for the home team — will be a bit of a shock for Georgia's younger players. The coaches have been showing videos of games at Neyland Stadium, trying to prepare the team's many freshmen and sophomores for what they'll be up against. But there's nothing like experiencing it in person.
"It makes you a little disoriented with all that orange," White said.
At least the game means something. If the Bulldogs can get by Tennessee (3-1, 0-1) and next week's contest at Vanderbilt, they'll head into the annual showdown against Florida with a possible SEC East title very much within reach. Georgia's last two conference games are at home, with No. 15 Auburn presenting the biggest challenge.
No. 17 Florida (4-1, 2-1) has the toughest road to the title game. The Gators play at top-ranked LSU this Saturday, then travel to Auburn the following week. Plus, there's a trip to South Carolina looming in November.
In addition to that home game against Florida, the No. 18 Gamecocks (4-1, 2-1) have a stretch of three straight road games against Mississippi State, Tennessee and No. 10 Arkansas.
Georgia doesn't quite have fate in its own hands, but it's close.
"People are saying Georgia's in the driver's seat," right end Orson Charles said. "At the beginning, people were like, 'Georgia's not that good.' Now they're bragging about us. I find that kind of funny."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.