ATHENS – Amid the various decorations, pumpkins and other seasonal items on display Tuesday night, a tombstone also could have been put out with this inscription: R.I.P., Storyline of Georgia the Plucky Underdog.

Hello, Georgia the Hunted.

Kirby Smart might not like it, but when a committee headed by another man named Kirby ranked Georgia as the No. 1 team in college football, the narrative changed.

OK, Georgia, here you are. It’s you and then Alabama.

“We can’t afford to worry about the rankings,” Georgia senior linebacker Davin Bellamy said the day before, speaking a truth that can be easier said than done.

Few people with this Georgia program have enjoyed, if that’s the right word for it, this rarefied air before. No players or coaches were around five years ago when Georgia entered the SEC Championship Game knowing that if it beat Alabama, it would then play Notre Dame for the national title.

(Strange, after all that has happened, that we’re sitting here five years later again mentioning those three teams at the top of the national rankings.)

The question going forward is how Georgia will handle all this. If every player and staff member had been injected with truth serum before this season, they would have said that winning the SEC East and making a New Year’s Six bowl would have been a good season. This team won eight games last year – and celebrated after winning the Liberty Bowl – and hasn’t won its own watered-down division in five years.

Of course, you always dream of doing more and being in real contention for a national championship. It’s another thing to actually find yourself there.

There are two things – besides pure talent, which Georgia has a lot of – working in this team’s favor:

  • Senior leadership. When your best players are also veterans you’re in great shape, and Georgia has seniors Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Dominick Sanders, Aaron Davis … it’s a long list. And the best defensive player is a junior, Roquan Smith.
  • Smart, who while only a second-year head coach, has been through this often at Alabama. He was part of four national championships there and another at LSU. This isn’t new to him. The only thing new is being the coach out front of the whole team, directing the culture and speaking to the media.

This isn’t all to say that Georgia is now the favorite in everyone’s minds. If the SEC title game were to be played now, one book would have Alabama as a 6-point favorite. Bovada, a gambling site, has Georgia at rather large 11-1 odds to win the national title, behind Alabama (5-7) and Ohio State (3-1) and tied with Clemson and Notre Dame.

There’s also still plenty of football to be played. The Auburn and Georgia Tech games will be tricky road affairs. Even if Georgia survives those unscathed and beats Alabama in the SEC title game, it will still have to win two more games to be the national champion.

Yeah, long way to go.

The rankings released Tuesday are also fairly meaningless, at least in the long run. Not only will Alabama and Georgia most likely settle it on the field – assuming it’s still a question by then – but the committee can always change its criteria from one week to the next. Kirby Holcutt, the selection committee chairman, said Georgia had a “slight edge over Alabama this week.” Emphasis on this week. These weekly early rankings are meant to gin up publicity. (And it works. Here I am writing about them.)

There was no watch party for the Bulldogs on Tuesday night. The first edition of the playoff rankings, so anticipated by others, was released as many players were showering from practice, healing bruises in the training room or watching post-practice film. If they did have any reaction, you can be sure they were instructed by Smart and coaches not to share them publicly.

Rat poison and such.

“When guys get to thinking about their ranking, they forget about what got them there, or what made us work hard, what got them to this point now,” said Georgia guard Solomon Kindley, a redshirt freshman. “If we don’t think about the ranking then our season is 0-0. South Carolina is our first game of the season. We’re just playing.”