The surest sign that Mark Richt is miffed: He cites numbers. He did it back in 2006, when Georgia was 5-0 but coming off shaky victories over Colorado and Ole Miss. (Those Bulldogs would lose four of their next five games, FYI.) He did it at the end of the 2008 season, which began with Georgia ranked No. 1 but wound down with Richt trying to make 10-3 sound like a major achievement. He did it again Saturday night.
Responding to a question (mine, actually) about the possibility that the halting performance against Kentucky had been a function of focusing more on the Florida-South Carolina score than the opponent at hand, he stopped in mid-answer. “Know what?” he said, his voice rising. “I’m happy with the victory. We’re 6-1. That’s not bad.”
Know what? He’s right. Georgia is 6-1, and 6-1 isn’t at all bad. (It’s good enough for 10th place in the BCS standings.) But now comes Florida, and this game will do more than define the Bulldogs’ season — it will shape the remainder of Mark Richt’s tenure at Georgia.
Richt has been in place since January 2001. He has — here we cite numbers for him — taken Georgia to two conference championships and four SEC title games. He has presided over seven 10-or-more-win seasons and seen his team finish in the Associated Press top 10 five times. Twice the Bulldogs under Richt have come close (in 2002 and 2007) to playing for the BCS title.
That said, his greatest successes came early, and not since 2007 — Richt’s seventh season — have the Bulldogs given their fans reason to believe the long-sought national championship is within reach. Thus have significant achievements come to be taken with a grain of salt. Winning the SEC East in 2011 was nice, but how nice is a season that features losses to the four best teams on the schedule? Being ranked No. 10 in the BCS is not nothing, but 17 days ago the Bulldogs were ranked No. 5 in the land, and not much good has happened since.
The question for Georgia and Richt is no longer about winning mere games; it’s about winning games of consequence, the games this program has ceased to win. South Carolina has become such a game, and the Bulldogs were embarrassed in Columbia on Oct. 6. Florida is another such game, though technically Georgia beat the Gators last season. But now the repellant reptiles are roaring again, and the Bulldogs under Richt still haven’t whipped a first-rate Florida team. (Richt’s three victories in Jacksonville have come against Gators who would finish 7-5, 9-4 and 7-6.)
If Georgia loses Saturday, it won’t repeat as SEC East champs. Given that the Bulldogs were picked to win the division in preseason, that would be a major disappointment. It would make last year’s return to prominence seem an aberration, not the new normal. Even worse, it would fuel the loaded question: If the 2012 Bulldogs, who came equipped with a bunny schedule and a seasoned quarterback and what seemed a mighty defense, couldn’t play for a conference or a national title, what Georgia team will?
Mark Richt is 52, which is considerably younger than Nick Saban or Les Miles, but a 10-2 season that doesn’t yield at least a division title would not play well among the noisier precincts of his constituency. That doesn’t mean Richt would get fired: There’s no way those in power would move to dislodge a coach who’s again winning 10 games a year. Still, the quality of life for Richt’s remaining seasons as Georgia’s coach would surely be lessened. The emphasis wouldn’t be on the many games Georgia has won but on the magnitude of the games it hasn’t. (No victory over a Top 10 team since 2009, et cetera.)
That the Bulldogs looked awful against South Carolina and awfully unimpressive against Kentucky could benefit the cause. Richt’s biggest victory over Florida — the Gator Stomp of 2007 — came when Georgia wasn’t expected to do anything except its usual Jacksonville flop. Now Florida, picked No. 3 in the SEC East, is ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings. Now this is considered Florida’s game to win.
But make no mistake: This is a game these Bulldogs and their coach need in the worst way. There have been breakthrough victories for Richt over the past 11 1/2 years — Tennessee in 2001, Auburn in 2002, Auburn again when Georgia had lost those four of five in 2006, Florida in 2007, maybe Georgia Tech in 2009 — but none lately. If Georgia wins, Mark Richt won’t need to invoke the record to remind us how good his program is. The record will again speak for itself.
Further reading: If you missed today’s Heat Check, it can be found here. (Georgia is mentioned.)
By Mark Bradley