In Mark Richt’s first five seasons at Georgia, the Bulldogs played in three SEC championship games. In the next five, they played in zero. So this somewhat qualifies as a welcome back to relevancy.
But does the euphoria of playing in the conference title game against LSU on Saturday project to long-term significance?
If Georgia’s 10-game winning streak wasn’t the mere residue of a soft schedule, if Richt once again truly is in command of this program, if the relative off-the-field peace – let’s put Isaiah Crowell aside for a moment – isn’t some aberration, then the Dogs can celebrate much more than a division title.
Georgia may suddenly find itself in a position to flip the power structure in the conference.
That’s not to suggest LSU or Alabama may implode any time soon. (They won’t.) But given the Dogs’ youth and ascent, the maturity and resiliency following the 0-2 start, returning talent, and an expected impact on recruiting, completing for SEC titles may be the norm again. And competing for SEC titles means relevancy on the national landscape, as well.
Athletic director Greg McGarity isn’t that far removed from having to ponder making a coaching change after this season. So he has been careful not to be overly effusive in praise or make grand proclamations in recent weeks. But he didn’t hesitate when asked about the future.
“The potential is there for us to build on what we’ve established this year,” he said. “Things are definitely going in the direction we want them to be going in. But you can never stop having a sense of urgency.
“I think we’ve seen in this conference that you can turn things around quickly. That’s evidenced by what Steve [Spurrier] did at Florida. It’s evidenced by what [Nick] Saban has done at Alabama, and what he and [Les] Miles did at LSU. The difficult thing is staying competitive. If your recruiting falls off or you have [coaching] turnover, you can fall behind in a hurry. Look at what happened at LSU before Nick got there. Look at Tennessee now.”
The Dogs don’t need to upset LSU in the Georgia Dome to validate their season. But not getting blown out would help. And they have a legitimate shot to win this. Aaron Murray is playing that well. So are his receivers. So is the defense.
The biggest problem is the running game in general and Crowell in particular. He has been a cyber-rumor with ears in the past few days. Pick one: He malingered at practice; he feuded with teammates; he quit; he got suspended. The only certainty is that his health (lately his ankle) has been an issue all season.
Crowell was at the Dome with his teammates Friday. He is on the “dress-out” list. Richt again declined to comment on the status of any of his running backs. But McGarity chuckled when asked about the suspension rumor, saying he knows nothing of it and commenting, “I’d know, wouldn’t I?”
If the situation is weighing on Richt, he hid it well. He seemed at peace. He referenced his 100th career win at Tennessee, the comeback against Florida, the wins over Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia Tech. It was a news conference of reflection for Richt, which is unusual for him during the season.
“We’ve had a lot of really special times with this team this year,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it maybe as much as any season that I’ve coached.”
He referenced the 0-2 start, the 6-7 record in 2010 and “all of the things I knew were swirling around, which I’m sure intensified. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, but I knew it was out there.”
When a national writer asked Richt if he felt vindicated, he responded: “This year in particular I’ve been very thankful for everything that’s happened. I’m thankful for a group of men who bought in back in January and went through all the things you have to go through to create team atmosphere and chemistry.”
It got them to the title game. It could get them to more in the future.
By Jeff Schultz