ATLANTA — Mark Richt apprenticed at Florida State when the Seminoles played for five national championships in eight seasons, and he came to Athens expecting more of the same. “That was the plan coming in,” he said Friday, “but it hasn’t happened yet.”
It could well happen Saturday. If Richt’s team wins the SEC championship game, the plan will have come to fruition. Twelve years Georgia’s coach, Richt has never been so close to playing for the BCS title. Twelve years Georgia’s coach, the path is finally clear.
A coach can never know when, or if, his moment will arrive. Richt had great early success — three division titles and two SEC championships in his first five years — and then he had rather less. We began to wonder if a fine career could ever bring the ultimate validation. Well, it’s there to be seized under the off-white roof of the Georgia Dome, there to be seized in the kind of game Richt has waited all his life to coach.
Beat Alabama and Georgia will play Notre Dame for the national championship. “I don’t want to minimize the importance of the SEC (title),” said Richt, speaking at a press briefing, “but that (the BCS) does add a lot more juice.” A program that went years without defeating an opponent of true consequence now gets its shot at the opponent of greatest consequence. Alabama is the gold standard of college football, and Bama is favored by a touchdown. But the feeling of those close to the Tide is that this is Nick Saban’s least imposing team of the past four — two of which have won national championships — and that Georgia is at least a match in talent.
And there’s also this: A mighty wind has stationed itself at Georgia’s back. On Oct. 6, the Bulldogs lost at South Carolina, 35-7, and no national-champion-to-be has ever lost by 28 points. But every week since has brought nothing but glad tidings to Georgia hearts. Consider:
— Oct. 13: The Bulldogs don’t play but are buoyed by South Carolina’s loss at LSU.
— Oct. 20: The Bulldogs barely beat Kentucky, but the day’s biggest news is that South Carolina has lost again, this time at Florida. Georgia now has the opening it needs to win the Eastern Division.
— Oct. 27: The Bulldogs beat hated Gators to move to the top of the SEC East.
— Nov. 3: The Bulldogs beat Ole Miss and then see Alabama, which some were suggesting was good enough to handle an NFL team, barely escape at LSU.
— Nov. 10: The Bulldogs beat Auburn to clinch the East in game that begins an hour after Texas A&M upsets Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
— Nov. 17: The Bulldogs beat Georgia Southern, and much later they watch as Kansas State, ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings, and Oregon, ranked No. 2, both lose. Georgia ascends to No. 3 the next day, rendering the SEC championship against No. 2 Alabama a BCS play-in.
— Nov. 24: The Bulldogs pound Georgia Tech like a kettledrum.
Through seven giddy weeks, Georgia has grown from a puzzling aggregation into a powerful one. Said Richt: “We have a lot of momentum.”
A month ago, the Bulldogs didn’t figure to stand a chance against mighty Bama. Today they’re seen by most neutral observers as a live underdog with a real chance, and even those picking the Tide are doing it largely because of the Tide’s experience in games of such magnitude. But this is a younger Bama team, and true eminence could be a year away.
For Georgia, both gifted and seasoned, a grand opportunity is at hand — an opportunity denied this program since the Bulldogs faced Penn State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1983. It was Herschel Walker’s last night as an amateur, and for 30 years Bulldog Nation has waited, not entirely patiently, for another chance at another national title.
For those long-suffering fans, for a coach who once seemed to have run out of ideas, for a team that was routed in its first real test of 2012 … for everyone involved with Georgia football, the moment has arrived. One massive game against one formidable opponent, one Dawg day of deliverance. Georgia 27, Alabama 20.
©2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
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