Tampa – Back in July he was being asked if he could turn it around. On the first day of 2012, Mark Richt was asked if Georgia had turned it around. And he said …
“I think so. I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re in a good place. We won 10 games, and when you win 10 games you’ve done well.”
Here he smiled. “Though 11 is better.”
Richt’s team can win its 11th game of a rebounding season by defeating Michigan State in the Outback Bowl on Monday. It won’t be easy — the Spartans rank fifth nationally in total defense, two spots behind Georgia — but being paired against a ranked opponent here beats the heck out of spending the holidays in Memphis readying to lose to Central Florida, which is where Georgia was 366 days ago.
A year ago we wondered — and by “we,” I mean “me” — if Richt was still the man for Georgia. Calendar 2012 begins with Richt negotiating a contract extension, which tells us Georgia believes he is. (About which Richt said: “We haven’t said anything [publicly regarding his contract] since we said we love each other.”)
The Bulldogs have been saying that the Outback is really the first game of 2012 on more than just the calendar, that it could propel them to a Top 10 preseason ranking, that the season ahead could be bigger and brighter than the one about to conclude. And it just might. Seventeen starters are scheduled to return, and some key figures among the Dream Team recruiting class haven’t made their collegiate presence felt.
Said Richt, speaking at a Sunday news briefing: “Some people believe in momentum. We have good positive momentum. In the future, we’re going to be in good shape. We had a taste of playing in the SEC championship game. We need to be able to finish, but we got the taste.”
A bit later, Richt was asked how he handled the criticism that stemmed from Georgia finishing 8-5 in 2009 and 6-7 last season. “As the leader of the program, I can’t act like I’m fretting or I’m mad about something,” he said. Then this:
“We’re going to be knocking on the door of the greatest success you can have in college football, and if you knock long enough you’ll eventually break through.”
There was a time when a national championship seemed Richt’s manifest destiny. He came close in 2002, when his 12-1 Bulldogs missed the BCS title game only because Miami and Ohio State finished unbeaten, close again in 2007, when Georgia was excluded from the championship tilt but finished No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. The Bulldogs entered the next season ranked No. 1 but lasted only one week there, and the thrashing they were dealt by Alabama on Sept. 27, 2008, marked a watershed moment for both programs.
Alabama started playing for SEC and national championships again. Georgia went from the Sugar Bowl to the Capital One to the Independence to the Liberty, and Richt, once a hot young coach, was suddenly neither. He was on the far side of 50 and hadn’t won the SEC since 2005 and hadn’t taken his team to the BCS title game ever. The SEC is about to annex its sixth consecutive national championship, and Georgia has had no hand in any part of the run.
But that, too, could be changing. It’s true that Georgia didn’t play the most testing schedule — it won’t next year, either; is Richt living right or what? — but it’s also true that the Bulldogs began to win the sort of games they’d come to lose. They even gave LSU a go for a half. They weren’t quite ready to win such a game, but next year they might be. All things considered, you’d rather be Georgia than Florida or Tennessee or even South Carolina today.
“We’re in good shape going into the offseason,” Richt said, and Georgia undeniably is. But it wouldn’t hurt to beat a Top 25 team to round off this turnaround. (Though Georgia is favored by a field goal, Michigan State is ranked higher in the AP and USA Today polls.) Winning 10 games in a row was nice. Winning an 11th would be better still.
By Mark Bradley