Georgia Has Reached a Crossroads with Mark Richt

1980. A glorious undefeated season. The Georgia Bulldogs won its last National Championship under legendary coach Vince Dooley.

Now, 34 years later with Mark Richt at the helm, sitting at 9-3 on the season with losses to three of its biggest rivals, Georgia is at a bit of a crossroads heading into its bowl game against Louisville. This season went as follows:

After a rousing victory against Clemson, the Dawgs suffered an inexplicable loss early in the season to a South Carolina team that was truly dreadful for most of the year. Then, Georgia rattled off five straight wins – even after star tailback Todd Gurley was suspended for breaking one of the more archaic rules in the NCAA – and a shot at the SEC Championship was still in its sights. Next, the Florida Gators – another team that struggled all year – outclassed the Bulldogs in Jacksonville, putting a wrench in the Dawgs’ plans.

Still, with a 34-0 statement win over Missouri earlier in the year, Georgia found itself with an outside shot at the SEC Championship following wins against its final two conference opponents, Kentucky and Auburn. With just one more Missouri loss, the dream would become a reality.

That dream crumbled on Black Friday, after Mizzou took care of business against Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas in consecutive weeks. Missouri would represent the SEC East for the second year in a row, and Georgia would again wonder how it let this one get away. But it didn’t end there. In a game against in-state rival Georgia Tech – who admittedly was extremely talented this year – Georgia faltered in the series for just the second time in the past 14 meetings, following a string of questionable calls and Hutson Mason’s fourth interception of the year in overtime.

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before, Georgia fans. A season under Mark Richt that started with great promise, followed by a couple losses to teams that had no business winning, off-the-field issues, missing out on the SEC Championship Game and heading into an underwhelming bowl game with nine or 10 wins. Sound familiar?

Regardless of whether Georgia prevails in the Belk Bowl against Louisville, Georgia AD Greg McGarity has an interesting dilemma on his hands regarding the direction of the program. Mark Richt has led Georgia to eight or more wins in 13 out of 14 years as the head coach. In fact, he has led the Dawgs to 10 wins or more in eight of 14 years. He has a 135-48 (.738) record overall. That is pretty darn good. But every year, Georgia falls short of the ultimate goal.

Richt – to his credit – has been extremely close. Look back to 2002. Georgia finished the season 11-1, sitting behind Miami (11-0), Ohio State (13-0) and Iowa (11-1) heading into the SEC Championship. After a 30-3 win over Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia entered the bowl season still ranked No. 4. The Dawgs won the Sugar Bowl over Florida State and finished the season 13-1, ranked No. 3 as Ohio State went on to win the National Championship. How about 2007? Georgia lost to South Carolina and Tennessee, which ultimately kept the Dawgs out of the SEC Championship. UGA headed into the postseason at No. 4 in the AP Poll, locked out of a chance at a BCS National Championship. That team finished ranked No. 2 after dismantling previously undefeated Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. Then, there was 2012, when Georgia headed into the SEC Championship against Alabama with an 11-1 record, only to fall five yards short of a shot at Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship. Instead, Georgia settled for a Capital One Bowl victory over Nebraska.

So is the perennial 10-win season and “oh so close to a championship” storyline good enough to save Mark Richt amid growing scrutiny? Some fans say they would accept a six- or seven-win season every now and then if there was a recent championship ring to take away the sting of a mediocre year. Other fans think Mark Richt is the best Georgia is going to get, and the fanbase should gladly accept his successes and shortcomings.

There are plenty of arguments to support both, but ultimately, the decision lies with McGarity, who recently said 10 wins is an important benchmark when measuring the success of a season. Should the Dawgs falter against former UGA DC Todd Grantham and the Louisville Cardinals in the Belk Bowl, the conversation about whether Mark Richt remains at the head of a Georgia football program searching for its first national title since the 1980-81 season will intensify immensely.

What will happen this offseason?

My guess: Mark Richt is staying right where he is for the foreseeable future.

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Main Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images