One of the most maligned power-conference coaches has a chance to make it right in 2015.
That’s right, I’m talking about Georgia coach Mark Richt. As widely panned as Richt is at this point in his career, his resume remains pretty impressive:
- Richt has led Georgia to a top-10 finish in the Associated Press poll seven different times.
- Under Richt, UGA has won the SEC East six times.
- The Bulldogs also have claimed two SEC championships in the Richt era, and came within mere yards of another — and a likely national championship — in 2012 before suffering a heartbreaking defeat to a dominant Alabama team.
No, Richt is not Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Steve Spurrier. Heck, he may not be as good of a coach as Les Miles or Gary Pinkel.
After a Liberty Bowl loss in 2010, UGA fell to 6-7. Richt’s team has endured its share of negative headlines, usually in the form of arrests, and internal and external ribbing, usually when the team loses a game it is “supposed” to win. The Bulldogs also haven’t won an SEC title since ’05.
Still, Richt gets hammered unfairly. Once you develop a reputation, it’s hard to shake.
Back to the aforementioned ’12 SEC championship game. Down 32-28, quarterback Aaron Murray — the SEC’s all-time passing leader — marched the ‘Dawgs from his own 15-yard line to the Alabama 8, where the team faced first-and-goal. But the down-and-distance no longer was a factor, as the menacing clock ticked away.
Chris Conley caught a 3-yard pass on the next snap that he should’ve batted to the ground, and the final seconds dissolved before UGA could run another play. The Bulldogs collapsed on the Georgia Dome field, while Alabama went on to demolish Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS championship.
If Georgia had just managed a touchdown there, it seems likely Richt and the Bulldogs would’ve been able to beat the Fighting Irish as well. And there’s no way that a 6-2 season in the SEC and a loss to rival Georgia Tech in ’14 would’ve erased that accomplishment.
Would a measly 5 yards — or 5 seconds — have made Richt into a genius coach? Is he better or worse by that small margin? Labels and media-guide accomplishments are so important to the perception of a program, but it seems odd that such a small detail would make such a big dent in a man’s reputation.
To be fair, Georgia has missed a prime window the last several years with Florida and Tennessee floundering. UGA has claimed the SEC East in two of the last four years. Last fall, despite embarrassing eventual division champion Mizzou, 34-0 on the road, the team suffered upset losses against South Carolina and Florida, spoiling the season.
That’s been an all-too-familiar occurrence. There is an impetus to compete at the highest level in Athens, especially when the circumstances are favorable and the roster is stocked with NFL talent.
These things often swing violently from year-to-year. Just ask former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, or Vanderbilt fans. Richt faces an enormous opportunity to bolster his reputation as a choker in games big and small.
Georgia will enter the 2015 season as a heavy favorite in the SEC East. More and more, it looks like Tennessee could be the only team capable of challenging the Bulldogs in the division standings throughout the course of an eight-game SEC schedule.
The Vols will be even better next year, and there’s reason to believe coach Jim McElwain will elevate the Florida Gators back to that platform soon. Missouri’s recent run has raised the standard of expectation surrounding that program. South Carolina is resisting the dying days of Spurrier’s tremendous career.
In other words, the time is now. UGA again has the rest of the division at a disadvantage with one of the nation’s best run-blocking offensive lines, all-time great depth of talent in the backfield and the SEC’s best collection of pass-rushing linebackers.
In the SEC West, Alabama and Auburn will enter the 2015 season as co-favorites. LSU, if it can get adequate quarterback play, and Ole Miss — if it can do the same, are talented enough to win even the most rugged division in college football if things break right.
Georgia gets an Alabama team that may not be as good as it has been, and in Athens. The Bulldogs are at least capable of finishing 6-0 against SEC East competition. Get to Atlanta in December and there’s a chance UGA could end the East’s inferiority in title games, especially since the Bulldogs may need to defeat the Tide or Tigers to reach that game in the first place.
If Richt and the Bulldogs ever wanted to serve up a giant middle finger to the detractors that insist UGA will never win a title with him as the coach, this is the season to do it.
An SEC or national title in 2015 would be the crown jewel of Richt’s career resume and finally quiet for good the notion that he’s incapable of accomplishing things at the highest levels of college football. The coach could shed his “choker” label for good this fall.