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SEC's Biggest Stories in 2011 No. 7: Mark Richt, Georgia are Back

Coming into the 2011 college football season, one question that had divided analysts and pundits over the last few years seemed to finally have an answer: Yes, Mark Richt was on the hot seat. A second losing season would likely mean the end of his tenure in Athens. Even a narrow winning season could end that term far earlier than Richt wanted it to, depending on which games were wins and losses and whether the team appeared to be moving forward or backward.

The first two weeks of the season were not that promising. It wasn't that surprising that Georgia lost to Boise State, but the Dawgs looked at best uneven in doing so. South Carolina's win in Athens also wasn't a stunner, but it certainly added to the pressure on Richt to try to turn things around.

And then, somewhat quietly, Georgia turned things around. By the time that South Carolina was upset in a home game against Auburn, the Bulldogs already had a three-game winning streak going. And by the time that South Carolina somewhat expectedly lost to Arkansas, Georgia's winning streak stood at seven.

In the end, Georgia would win 10 straight -- with the ninth victory against Kentucky clinching Richt's first outright division title since 2005. A season that had begun with questions about whether Richt would have a chance to get his team back to Atlanta ended with him coaching his team there -- though the game did not really go all that well for the Dawgs.

The question now is how high Richt can take the Dawgs now that he has his second wind. Unless Charlie Weis' successor can spin gold in the first year or two and Derek Dooley shows signs of the turnaround that Vols fans have been waiting for, the division in 2012 looks like a repeat of 2011: Georgia vs. South Carolina for the trip to Atlanta. Though James Franklin's own resurgent Commodores -- or perhaps we should call them "surgent Commodores," since "re-" seems to be stretching it -- might have something to say about that.

What seems to be clear is that Richt will be along for the ride. The hot seat is never more than a subpar year or two away for a coach in the SEC, but anyone who can rally a team from an 0-2 record to a division title has earned his contract extension.

But the clearest sign that Richt's trajectory is headed in the right direction? He was recently mentioned in the rumor mill as a head-coaching candidate at Texas A&M and Penn State. Which either means that Richt is still seen as a hot commodity, or Jimmy Sexton is trying to drive up the price that Georgia will gladly pay to keep the coach on the sidelines -- and both are encouraging signs for a man who seemed to be a few bad weeks away from a pink slip when the first game kicked off.