Florida Vs. Georgia Preview: Can Mark Richt Win the Big Games?

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

A selective look at some of the top games the Bulldogs have played under their current head coach, and how he got the reputation that he might not fare so well when the stakes are high

If there's one thing that's powered the on-again, off-again (and currently off) hot seat talk that has surrounded Mark Richt in recent years, it's his reputation for being unable to win the "big games." (The 6-7 record in 2010 clearly didn't help matters, but we're setting that aside for the moment.) This is a guy who's beat Florida three times since he came to Athens in 2001, has lost three straight to South Carolina and has lost his last two bowl games.

That talk is likely to take center-stage we get closer to the World's Largest Cocktail Party, and you might even notice some pundits building their predictions in part around the idea. And as with all conventional wisdom, there's a kernel of truth to this. But there's also a lot of short-term amnesia going on among those who are convinced that Richt just can't hack it when the stakes are high.

Let's take a look at some of the biggest games in Richt's tenure. What exactly marks a "big game" is subjective; you might differ on exactly which games I pulled out. For the most part, I stuck with rivalry games, games against highly-ranked teams (particularly when the Dawgs were also ranked), SEC championship games and bowl games.

Oct. 6, 2001: Georgia 26, Tennessee 24

It was Mark Richt's first road game. Even though Georgia got outgained by Tennessee, a touchdown in the closing moments of the game gave the Dawgs the win. This was where Larry Munson's famous "hobnail boot" line comes from. Tennessee would go on to win the SEC East, but then lose in the conference championship game, something a Gamecock fan hoping for a trip to the Capital One Bowl that year might remember for knocking each division team down a peg.

Dec. 28, 2001: Boston College 20, Georgia 16 (Music City Bowl)

Richt lost his first bowl game at Georgia, as BC scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to close out the Dawgs. Richt's first team finished with an 8-4 record.

Sept. 14, 2002: Georgia 13, South Carolina 7

After two consecutive losses to the Gamecocks, Georgia fans were ready for some revenge. They got it in 2002, in a sloppy game that featured David Pollack's end zone, never-airborne interception that remains one of the greatest (and most heartbreaking) plays I've ever seen.

Nov. 2, 2002: Florida 20, Georgia 13

This has to be one of the most painful games of the Mark Richt Era. The Bulldogs stuffed the Gators for just 42 yards rushing, but a fourth-quarter touchdown pass and two-point conversion turned a 13-12 Georgia lead into a 20-13 defeat. It marked the first and only loss of the year for the Bulldogs and would end up costing them a shot at playing for the national championship.

Dec. 7, 2002: Georgia 30, Arkansas 3 (SEC Championship Game)

Arkansas technically wasn't supposed to be in this game -- they didn't win the SEC West, but Alabama was on probation and the Hogs won all the tiebreakers in a three-way deadlock. (via) It showed. Georgia scored 17 points in the first quarter and never looked back as the game became a rout. It was the first conference championship for the Dawgs in 20 years.

Jan. 1, 2003: Georgia 26, Florida State 13 (Sugar Bowl)

A classic teacher-vs.-pupil game, as Richt faced off with mentor Bobby Bowden. A pick-six by Bruce Thornton gave Georgia a lead in the second quarter and they held it to give Richt his first bowl win.

Sept. 20, 2003: LSU 17, Georgia 10
Dec. 6, 2003: LSU 34, Georgia 13 (SEC Championship Game)

The Bayou Bengals were headed for a national championship, and Georgia's two attempts to derail that came up short. Nothing to be ashamed of, of course. Georgia did markedly better, though, in the first game -- when less could be assumed to be on the line than in the SEC title bout.

Jan. 1, 2004: Georgia 34, Purdue 27 -- OT (Outback Bowl)

You can fault the Dawgs for letting Purdue rally from a 24-point second-quarter deficit to tie the game at 27 just before time expired, but Georgia ended the game in the first overtime, so no real harm done.

Nov. 13, 2004: Auburn 24, Georgia 6

Georgia had already lost the one game against Tennessee that would end up keeping the Dawgs from winning the SEC East this year, but both Auburn and Georgia were Top 10 teams. And Auburn was still in the running for the SEC and national championships -- which would have provided more than enough motivation. But Georgia could only manage 85 yards on the game and wouldn't score until there were about two minutes left. Auburn won the SEC but got locked out of the national championship game for an Oklahoma team that shouldn't have been there and a Southern Cal team that officially was not.

Jan. 1, 2005: Georgia 24, Wisconsin 21 (Outback Bowl)

Georgia more than doubled up the Badgers in yardage and held Wisconsin to 1.7 yards a game, mostly because the Georgia defense forced John Stocco to run for his life. Georgia lost the turnover battle or this game wouldn't have been quite as close as it was.

Sept. 3, 2005: Georgia 48, Boise State 13

There was a lot of hype going into this game about whether the Broncos, who were beginning to draw attention for their winning ways, could challenge the mighty Bulldogs. They could not.

Sept 10, 2005: Georgia 17, South Carolina 15

Dawgs fans came into this game wanting revenge -- not for anything South Carolina had done, but because Steve Spurrier was returning to Athens for the first time since becoming the first team to drop 50 on Georgia at home. They giddily predicted running up the score on a team that some experts predicted would go 4-7. Instead, a missed extra point and a poorly thrown ball to an open receiver on what would have been a two-point conversion was all that prevented overtime. The Gamecocks also missed a field goal that would have given them the win -- but the victory was all that really mattered, and Georgia got that much.

Oct. 29, 2005: Florida 14, Georgia 10

This game marked Georgia's first loss but wouldn't end the Dawgs' shot at an SEC championship.

Dec. 3, 2005: Georgia 34, LSU 14 (SEC Championship Game)

LSU's sole loss to that point had come in late September in a wild overtime game against Tennessee. Georgia had already lost two games and were seen as the underdogs. So much for all that. It wasn't quite as much an offensive slugfest as the numbers would suggest -- D.J. Shockley got almost two-thirds of his passing yardage on his two touchdown throws -- but it was a rout.

Jan. 2, 2006: West Virginia 38, Georgia 35 (Sugar Bowl)

Even though Georgia would still enjoy some big-game success after this, you can probably track the start of the "Big Game" Mark Richt meme back to this contest. It was the national debut of the West Virginia team that would nearly win a national championship not long after, and Georgia spent most of the first part of the game getting sliced and diced by the Mountaineers' spread offense. The Dawgs fought back to make it a game, but the "haha you lost to a Big East team" narrative hung around for a while.

Oct. 7, 2006: Tennessee 51, Georgia 33

This was a Top 15 matchup when the Vols rolled into Sanford, became the second team to drop half a hundred on the scoreboard as the visitors, and then left. It was also the beginning of a difficult stretch for Georgia, which would also lose three of its next four games.

Nov. 11, 2006: Georgia 37, Auburn 15

The Tigers were 9-1 and thinking about perhaps getting into the national championship game. Georgia was 6-4 and coming off the second half of its second two-game losing streak of the season. That would be the loss to Kentucky in a season that also feature a defeat against Vanderbilt. But the Dawgs turned in a 23-point second quarter (with some help from a generous Auburn offense) and clocked the Tigers, knocking them out of the SEC and national title races.

Dec. 30, 2006: Georgia 31, Virginia Tech 24 (Chick-fil-A Bowl)

The Dawgs managed to rally from a 21-3 halftime lead and actually get back into one of the polls. It seemed like 2006 might have been a blip on the radar in an otherwise successful coaching tenure. The 2007 season would seem to backt hat up.

Sept. 1, 2007: Georgia 35, Oklahoma State 14

There was a lot of hype going into this game about whether the Cowboys, who were beginning to draw attention for Mike Gundy's coaching, could challenge the mighty Bulldogs. They could not.

Oct. 27, 2007: Georgia 42, Florida 30

This is the game that gave us that infamous riot/celebration that led to two simultaneous unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on Georgia and the greatest Urban Meyer quote ever: "It was a bad deal. It will forever be in the mind of Urban Meyer and in the mind of our football team. We’ll handle it and it’s going to be a big deal." It was also a big deal for Georgia, coming in the early part of a seven-game winning streak and seeming to spark the team.

Jan. 1, 2008: Georgia 41, Hawaii 10 (Sugar Bowl)

This was a big game only in the atmospherics -- two highly-ranked teams in a BCS bowl. It soon became clear that Hawaii was a paper tiger, and Georgia spent most of the game scattering those pieces of paper that Hawaii called the defensive and offensive lines all over the Super Dome.

Sept. 20, 2008: Georgia 27, Arizona State 10

The trip to Tempe was supposed to be the biggest early-season test for the Dawgs, then seen as potential national-title contenders. One 21-point second quarter later, Georgia had aced the exam.

Sept. 27, 2008: Alabama 41, Georgia 30

The Bulldogs apparently left whatever allowed them to win in Tempe, in Tempe. What followed was one the most thorough dominations of a football game you will ever see when the final deficits are 11 points on the scoreboard and fewer yards (10) on the stat sheet. The Tide rang up a 31-0 halftime lead, then seemed to play both prevent offense and prevent defense in the second half to make things look a lot closer than they were.

Nov. 1, 2008: Florida 49, Georgia 10

Despite the loss to Alabama, Georgia was still in the hunt for the SEC East when the Bulldogs met the Gators in Jacksonville. Georgia committed four turnovers and Tim Tebow led the Gators to another in a series of easy wins against competent-looking foes who melted down. At one point, the Bulldogs went 38 minutes between scores.

Nov. 29, 2008: Georgia Tech 45, Georgia 42

There was an opportunity for Georgia to get one quasi-season-redeeming win against the Yellow Jackets. Then they allowed 26 points in the third quarter and allowed Georgia Tech to win while completing one pass. (The 409 rushing yards had more to do with the victory, I'm sure.)

Jan. 1, 2009: Georgia 24, Michigan State 12 (Capital One Bowl)

It might not be any consolation, but there would be a later season when Georgia would have loved to defeat Michigan State in a Florida bowl game. But by this point, the "Big Game" complaint was beginning to grow. Richt had lost three vitally important games in a season that was supposed to bring a national championship back to Athens for the first time in nearly three decades. And only one of those losses had been all that close.

Sept. 5, 2009: Oklahoma State 24, Georgia 10

There was a lot of hype going into this game about whether the Cowboys, who were continuing to draw attention for Mike Gundy's coaching, could challenge the mighty Bulldogs. They did. And they won.

Oct. 3, 2009: LSU 20, Georgia 13

I'm hesitant to call this a loss for obvious reasons. But it happened and undoubtedly played into the narrative when people felt like it, so here it is.

Nov. 28, 2009: Georgia 30, Georgia Tech 24

The NCAA would like to remind us that, officially, the Yellow Jackets were not on their way to an ACC Championship Game when Georgia surprised Georgia Tech at home. But we didn't know that at the time, and this looked like a pretty solid win for Richt and Co.

Dec. 28, 2009: Georgia 44, Texas A&M 20 (Independence Bowl)

No one knew that this was a preview of a future conference game when the Bulldogs and the Aggies met in a postseason game. Even against the mediocre competition, Georgia fans took comfort that blowing out A&M by 24 points signaled a real chance at improvement in 2010. That's not precisely what happened.

Sept. 11, 2010: South Carolina 17, Georgia 6

This was the "welcome to the SEC, Mr. Marcus Lattimore" game. Georgia had a chance to put itself forward as a candidate for the SEC East title in the post-Tebow Era and instead allowed South Carolina to steadily grind the game to powder.

Nov. 13, 2010: Auburn 49, Georgia 31

This one started out looking like it might be a good game for the Bulldogs, as they took a 21-7 lead in the first quarter. Then, the other 45 minutes of the game happened. Auburn scored 14 points in the second, third and fourth quarters; despite Georgia tying the game in the third, they were never again able to get a lead on Auburn once the Tigers tied it just before halftime. Auburn would go on to have an undefeated season and win a national title.

Nov. 27, 2010: Georgia 42, Georgia Tech 34

The annual rivalry bout was important for all the wrong reasons: Lose it and the Bulldogs would be home for the bowl season for the first time since Mark Richt started coaching. The hot-seat talk would take on very serious undertones. It was far from inspiring -- Georgia Tech generated 512 yards of total offense -- but it was enough to avoid a real disaster. That would come later.

Dec. 28, 2010: UCF 10, Georgia 6 (Liberty Bowl)

About a month later, to be precise. This was not a game of beauty for either team -- they combined for 521 yards of total offense -- but a fourth-quarter touchdown gave the Knights the win. That meant that in the space of less than five years, Georgia had managed to lose bowl games to a Big East team and a Conference USA team. Oh, and Richt had a losing season for the first time in his head coaching career. You can see why things were getting tense in Athens.

Sept. 3, 2011: Boise State 34, Georgia 21

This was supposed to be a chance for the Dawgs to put the upstarts from Idaho in their place. Things did not go according to script.

Sept. 10, 2011: South Carolina 45, Georgia 42

With this loss, the wheels were coming off of the Mark Richt Era. He had lost three straight games, two of them to teams from non-AQ leagues, and the Dawgs were behind the eight ball in the race for the SEC East. Losses in major games were also piling up.

Oct. 29, 2011: Georgia 24, Florida 20

After the upset loss to Auburn at home and with a potential loss to Arkansas looming, South Carolina fans could pin their hopes on one thing about Mark Richt's Bulldogs: They never won against Florida. Except, this time, Georgia did. Aaron Murray completed fewer than half his passes, but the defense shut Florida down and Georgia got its SEC East hopes back on track.

Dec. 5, 2011: LSU 42, Georgia 10 (SEC Championship Game)

The hopes that Richt had now permanently solved his big-game woes seemed unfounded. For the next-to-last time in the 2011 season, Georgia would play what appeared to be a quality opponent -- and lose. Georgia took an early 10-0 and then watched (and didn't do much more) as LSU scored 42 unanswered points to turn the game into a laugher.

Jan. 2, 2012: Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 -- 3OT (Outback Bowl)

This game never should have gotten to overtime. The Bulldogs took a 16-0 lead into the locker room and once again gave it away, allowing the Spartans to tie the game and then win it in extra frames. Mark Richt had gone through a season and lost to every opponent that would finish the year ranked.

Again, this is an unscientific study. There's no set definition of a "big game," and there were some that I almost included that didn't make it and vice versa. (Going with "games against ranked teams" can be overly simplistic, since real-time rankings are often inflated or deflated and even postseason rankings aren't a perfect barometer. Besides, there are some games that are significant regardless of the rankings.)

But you can make the case that Richt was a solid big-game coach, with a few hiccups that aren't unexpected when you're facing top-notch teams, until around the time of the Alabama blackout debacle. Since then, Georgia has won a significant game here or there, but that's been the exception rather than the rule; even last year's win in Jacksonville is less surprising than it looks given where each team ended up.

Then again, part of what makes Mark Richt a great coach is that his teams end up in so many big games -- he makes his teams significant factors in the races for the SEC and the national title.

But there's only so far that can get you. Eventually, fans want to not just watch their teams play in big games, but watch their teams win in big games. Richt has another chance to give them that on Saturday.

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