It’s only Year 2 in the Mark Richt Project at Miami and already the former long-time Georgia Bulldogs head coach has his alma mater in the national championship conversation. The talk could escalate into a full-blown roar on Saturday if Richt’s undefeated Canes can upset No. 3 Notre Dame at home in front of what is expected to be a sold-out Hard Rock Stadium.

The GameDay crew will be on hand for the big event.

How did this happen? How did the Bulldogs let go of such a coach? And how has he been able to awaken a sleeping giant so quickly?

Perhaps it isn’t as difficult to understand as one might imagine. After all, he did the same thing at Georgia. The parallels are striking, not only between the Georgia and Miami programs, but also Richt’s contributions to each.

In its quest to climb back to the top of the college football world, Georgia took a chance on a respected assistant coach who had spent 10 seasons at Florida State as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. The Bulldogs gave Richt his first opportunity as a head coach, hoping to relive the glory days of the early 1980s when Georgia last won a national championship.

in the early ’80s, Richt was a backup quarterback with The U as the Hurricanes followed Georgia into the national spotlight, much like Richt’s head coaching career would travel first through Athens and then on to South Florida. And though the sample size is small, it’s been almost a carbon copy.

In his first season at Georgia, Richt’s Bulldogs went 8-4. He finished 9-4 last year as Miami’s new head coach. In his second season with the Bulldogs, his team won the first eight games out of the gate. Sound familiar?

It was the last time, before this season, that Georgia won its first eight games. The year was 2002, and strangely enough, it was the last time a Miami team opened the season 8-0. Until this year.

Richt’s Hurricanes are once again 8-0 and stand on the threshold of college football’s biggest prize, a prize he never attained at Georgia. His 2002 Bulldogs team reached a No. 3 ranking at season’s end. It would be topped only by a No. 2 finish to the 2007 campaign. And though his team opened the 2008 schedule ranked No. 1, the Bulldogs could muster only a 10-3 record and a No. 13 ranking.

His Bulldogs finished out of the rankings completely in three of his last six seasons, thus facilitating the move to replace him, much to the jubilation of a Miami program desperate for its own changing of the guard.

So Richt went back “home,” and as a result, rejuvenated both programs.

“I just knew I wanted to be back at my alma mater, at a place that had the rich tradition of winning and winning in a big way, and being in a fertile recruiting area, which South Florida is,” Richt said in a recent teleconference.

Despite some sub-par records over his final six seasons at Georgia, Richt certainly hasn’t forgotten how to coach. In fact, its his return to a more hands-on approach with his quarterbacks and calling plays for the offense that has injected new life not only into the 17-year veteran head coach, but also the Miami program.

He and his son, Hurricanes quarterbacks coach Jon Richt, have successfully transitioned Canes QB Malik Rosier out of the shadows of former signal-caller Brad Kaaya, the most prolific passer in the program’s history.

"We’re not at the point where we can just line up and impose our will on people. ... We have to battle every week.”
- Miami coach Mark Richt

 “A lot of positive things are happening through the adversity that we’ve been able to overcome to this point,” Richt said. “We’re not at the point where we can just line up and impose our will on people. We’re not lining up and whipping people and having margins of victory that are comfortable. We have to battle every week.”

Here’s the oddest part of the parallel: like his teams at Georgia, the Hurricanes are winning with solid defense. Richt may be as good as, or even better, at judging the quality of assistant coaches as he is judging quarterbacks. He brought veteran Craig Kuligowski from Missouri when that program made a change at the top.

One of the most respected defensive line coaches in the SEC, if not the country, Kuligowski arrived at Miami after spending the previous 15 years at Missouri, the longest tenured position coach in the SEC. In one season, he helped renovate the Hurricanes’ defense, which ranked 86th nationally in yards allowed per play but improved to No. 9 in the country last season. The Canes went from 105th in the nation to No. 5 in tackles for loss, 77th to 12th in scoring defense and 69th to 20th in total defense.

But as anyone knows, you don’t win at an elite level without elite talent. And like the state of Georgia, the area in and around the city of Miami is a hotbed for talent, a pipeline the Hurricanes were able to tap into in the 1980s and 90s. Having played there, and still very familiar with the region, Richt is doing the same. He started three freshman linebackers last season, and as of early this week, the Canes ranked No. 4 in the nation in recruiting by 247sports.

So it’s a familiar formula that Richt is once again proving successful with: a hands-on approach, solid assistant coaches, and most of all cultivating the talent at hand. He can take the next step at Miami on Saturday as the Canes renew an old and bitter rivalry with Notre Dame.

“It’s what you hope for, it’s what you work toward,” Richt said in a Tuesday press conference. “And it just so happens that this Saturday night is going to be very meaningful for both teams.”