COLUMBIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Head coach Mark Richt of the Georgia Bulldogs speaks with quarterback Aaron Murray #11 during the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium on September 11 2010 in Columbia South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat the Bulldogs 17-6. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Mark Richt has developed a bit of a reputation as a guy who performs well when the pressure is off and can't deliver when the pressure is on. It's not hard to figure out why.
Richt has won or tied for the East division title five times in his 11 years: 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2011. Tennessee went to Atlanta in '07, of course, having won the divisional tiebreaker. Across those years, UGA was picked second in the division three times and third twice in the preseason consensus ('02, '03, '05, '07, '11). Conversely, Richt's Bulldogs have only been the consensus preseason favorite twice: 2004 and 2008. He won 10 games in each of those seasons, but his team did finish second in the East both times.
Keeping the four-year cycle going, the early 2012 preseason consensus has UGA well out in the lead for the division title as of the time this post went live. The picks largely consist of preseason magazines that were published long before Isaiah Crowell's arrest and dismissal, but I expect Georgia to hold firm to the top spot anyway.
The Bulldogs are the reigning division champ, and that status often causes pundits to give a team the benefit of the doubt in future predictions. Plus, Aaron Murray is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and Todd Grantham has largely fixed the defensive problems that led Georgia's decline a few years back. The fact that Jarvis Jones returned to anchor the defense is enough to give opposing offensive coordinators cold sweats, to say nothing of what it means to the prediction makers. And although I'm sure UGA partisans are sick of hearing about it by now, no one can talk about the Red and Black's presumed East title without mentioning the fact that it misses Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU out of the West division.
There are plenty of reasons why Georgia should win the East division, but this team isn't nearly as sturdily in the penthouse as Bama and LSU are out West. Indeed, there's no guarantee the team will even win 10 games. The team will play at Missouri without several key suspended secondary starters, and it has to travel to fellow East contender South Carolina as well. Despite winning three of the last eight in the series, the Florida game in Jacksonville might still be a bit of a psychological hurdle (and the Gators will likely be better than they were last year anyway). Georgia's slate is about as friendly as they come because the team doesn't have to play either the three West division heavyweights or itself, but enough pitfalls exist that UGA is no more a lock than anyone else is.
It will be fascinating to see how this season factors into the ongoing discussion of Richt's legacy in Athens. Few coaches have their track records audited as often as he does, and this year will certainly factor into the narrative. The "hot seat" meme died with last year's East title, and this year could be the year he finally breaks through as the favorite. That would give him six won or shared division titles in 12 years, a rate that would tie him with Nick Saban's current clip across both his SEC gigs. Richt's current 45% division first place rate is already above Les Miles's 42%.
Georgia might be the overwhelming favorite at this point, but that doesn't mean the race for the East is at all settled.