Mark Richt, along with Mark Fox, will be making the rounds of alumni association gatherings starting April 18 in Rome. The UGA Days tour will hit Albany April 24, Columbus April 25, Macon May 8, Charlotte May 9, the Golden Isles May 15, Valdosta May 16, Birmingham May 22, Tampa May 24 and Atlanta July 23.
This time last year when Richt went out to meet the fans, he was widely considered to be on the “hot seat,” coming off a losing season and a dispiriting bowl performance. The talk was what a challenge Richt faced just to keep his job.
But, actually, I think Richt faces a bigger challenge this season than last.
Consider: Richt had the enormous goodwill generated by the Dream Team in his pocket a year ago and the realization on the part of most fans that Georgia faced tremendous odds in opening the season with Boise State and South Carolina, though the schedule looked pretty manageable after that.
As it played out, the fan optimism surrounding the arrival of Isaiah Crowell and Co. in Athens was enough for Richt to ride out the feared 0-2 start to the season. (It helped considerably that despite looking awful much of the time in the Georgia Dome against Boise, Georgia actually outplayed South Carolina, even in Steve Spurrier’s estimation, in losing a close one a week later.)
The 10-game winning streak that followed put the hot-seat talk on the back burner.
By season’s end, most fans I talked with felt good progress had been made, even if Crowell’s difficulties staying on the field put an end to thoughts of him as the second coming of Herschel.
Still, although most in the Bulldog Nation didn’t really expect the Dawgs to prevail over LSU in the SEC Championship, the return of the all-too-familiar fourth quarter collapse in the bowl against Michigan State left the fan base grumbling a bit.
Then came signing day, which saw Richt get a solid class of recruits — ranked fifth best in the nation by ESPN — but fall short in a few last-minute courtships, taking a bit of the luster off Georgia’s showing in the minds of some recruitniks.
Actually, the self-dubbed “Ring Team” with Keith Marshall, Todd Gurley and John Theus has just as much potential as the previous year’s signing class, but they arrive in Athens amid a different atmosphere from a year ago.
Much more is expected of the 2012 Georgia Bulldogs, who return a host of starters, including most of last season’s fifth-ranked defense. Early on there was talk that Georgia might start the season as a Top 5 team, though that early optimism might end up being tempered somewhat by the fact that the Dawgs will open SEC play at Missouri with most of the starting secondary suspended.
And then there’s the issue of attrition, which some see as a big deal, though it appears to me to be pretty much business as usual for Georgia and SEC schools in general. Last year also saw some players getting “off the bus” to transfer elsewhere for various reasons and a handful of others shown the door because they couldn’t get in step with what Richt believes is the Georgia Way.
But even when the tailback corps was decimated by transfers last year, there was still that Dream Team fervor to counter it. This year the problems Georgia will face fielding an experienced secondary against Mizzou’s James Franklin seem to loom a bit larger in many people’s minds.
And with Georgia expected by many to win the SEC East, the stakes are just as high, if not higher, for Richt this season than when his job was believed to be on the line. As we’ve already discussed here, winning the SEC East a second year only to lose again to the West team in the Dome and wind up in another non-BCS bowl would be seen by many as underachieving or, at best, standing pat.
The last time a Richt team entered a season with lofty expectations placed on them — remember the preseason No. 1 in in 2008? — the Dawgs came a cropper, starting a slide that didn’t begin to turn around until that 10-game run last year.
Richt definitely doesn’t want to see that happen again. So with all those expectations and this year’s schedule even more favorable, Georgia’s head coach might wind up feeling more pressure now that he’s off the hot seat than when he was on it.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg