Dawgs control own destiny in East

ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt quietly watched Saturday night's big game at home with his wife, Katharyn.

And once Arkansas completed its 44-28 win against South Carolina, he flipped over to Alabama-LSU.

The overtime game between the top-ranked Tigers and second-ranked Crimson Tide was one of the most-watched college football games in years, but Richt and many Georgia fans were instead more interested in seeing the Razorbacks topple the Gamecocks.

Once they did, Georgia (7-2, 5-1 SEC) moved into first place in the SEC East ahead of the Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2), who defeated the Bulldogs 45-42 in September.

Richt said he won't have to explain the implications to his players as they enter the final two games of their conference schedule, starting with this weekend's 3:30 p.m. ET home game against Auburn (6-3, 4-2).

"I know they all understand what's at stake and the fact that we are in a better position now where we control our destiny," said Richt, whose team moved to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll and No. 16 in the coaches' poll. "We've been fighting like mad for that ever since the moment that South Carolina beat us, but the thing that's gotten us this far is on a weekly basis just trying to take care of business. Again that's got to be our focus."

That begins Saturday against Auburn in a rivalry game that typically falls late in the season and has a history where the lower-ranked team played spoiler for the favorite. Early Las Vegas odds set Georgia as a 12.5-point favorite against the Tigers.

"I know historically just when I first came to Georgia and listened to some people that know the history well of the series talking about how many times Georgia didn't make it because of Auburn and how many times Auburn didn't make it because of Georgia, so there's a spoiler element to the series over the years," Richt said.

Auburn, ranked 24th by the AP voters and 25th by the coaches, already has lost three times, but those losses were to LSU, Arkansas and Clemson -- teams that are a combined 25-2.

Missouri travel issues
Richt was not aware of Sunday's official announcement that Missouri had joined the SEC until being informed of the move on his Sunday teleconference.

"I think it's great, because I've got an awful lot of faith in our leadership in this league to make the best decision for our league, so I'm all for it," Richt said.

Early indications are the Tigers will join the East in order to preserve the annual cross-divisional football rivalries that exist such as Georgia-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee. However, Georgia and Missouri are more than 700 miles apart, which certainly will create travel obstacles for fans and teams.

Richt and the football team would have been caught in that situation as well until last year, when modifications at Athens-Ben Epps Airport enabled the Bulldogs to fly directly out of Athens instead of busing to Atlanta and flying out of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

"Now if we fly out of Athens, we'll probably get to Missouri quicker than we did to Nashville back when we were riding to the airport and going through security and all that stuff," Richt said. "Travel is pretty quick, and it won't be that big of a burden at all, I don't think."

Running backs return
Richt said he expects freshman Isaiah Crowell to return to his role as the Bulldogs' No. 1 tailback at Monday's practice, following his suspension for last Saturday's New Mexico State game.

"If Richard [Samuel] was not injured, it would have certainly been a good competition," Richt said. "Right now, I would have to say everything's real competitive, but I'd say first snap we'd take, Isaiah would be the No. 1 tailback in practice."

The running backs were one of the bright spots in the Bulldogs' 63-16 homecoming win after entering the game as the greatest source of uncertainty. Samuel underwent surgery on an injured ankle on Tuesday and leading rusher Crowell, Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome all sat out for failing a drug test.

In their absence, Brandon Harton rushed 15 times for 98 yards and walk-on Kyle Karempelis had 13 carries for 63 yards. Both players scored their first career touchdowns.

"You did what you were supposed to do. You came out and executed well, handled adversity well," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "Guys stepped up and played well around those guys. And those guys, you've got to give them credit. They were well prepared by [running backs coach Bryan] McClendon, and they did a good job of executing the game plan."

Mitchell's progress
Richt said freshman Malcolm Mitchell is on track to participate in Monday's light practice and that Georgia's coaches slowly plan to work him back into the receiver rotation in practice during the week.

Mitchell has missed Georgia's last three games since injuring his hamstring on Oct. 8 against Tennessee, then re-aggravating the injury on Oct. 24 during a practice preceding the Florida game.

"By Wednesday we'll see how he's doing," Richt said. "We may let him go full speed that day and compete in some of the 11-on-11s and one-on-ones, but pass skeleton, I don't know if we'll do that or not."

Despite his absence, Mitchell still leads the Bulldogs with 438 receiving yards and is third on the team with 25 catches.

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.