February 03, 2011
Echoing pretty much everyone who watched his instate "Dream Team" come together over the last two weeks, piece by piece, Georgia coach Mark Richt didn't waste any time Wednesday dubbing his freshly signed recruiting class the "largest and most talent and the best bunch" in his 11-year tenure, which is saying something. Since 2002 (the first year in Rivals' online archives), Georgia's incoming crop has ranked in the top 10 nationally every year except one (2010), the most consistent, bankable streak in the most competitive recruiting conference in the country.
On paper, the latest crop of Bulldogs looks like a par-for-the-course group by prevailing UGA standards: Peach State ties and adorable press conference mascots notwithstanding, the 2011 class didn't break any new ground for Georgia in the national or SEC rankings, in the number of overhyped, five-star signees or in overall numbers. Signing day produced a very good class with high expectations, in the same way that pretty much every signing day under Richt has produced a very good class with high expectations. And amid the hype, the last three or four of those classes have not produced enough wins on the field, putting Richt squarely on one of the hottest coaching seats in the country.
Through the eternally optimistic lens of recruiting, though, that's precisely the context that makes Richt's near-sweep of the top instate talent so buzzworthy in the first place: Off his least celebrated recruiting class last February and indisputably his worst season last fall, it's validation that Richt is far from a lame duck as far as the players are concerned – quite the opposite, in fact, considering he managed to sell a disparate group of 17 and 18-year-olds on a common vision (Georgia for Georgians! And one really good North Carolinian!) that could pay off in a return to the SEC elite. It's hard enough to herd individual teenagers into one place; bringing them together under a team concept before they ever arrived on campus is an accomplishment.
It may also be the first unmistakable sign of progress under Richt since the Bulldogs opened the season at No. 1 in 2008. The subsequent two-and-a-half years have been a steady decline that hit a new low in a Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida that sealed Georgia's first losing season in more than a decade. Richt called that game "a wake-up call," and two months later, says he "feel(s) revived as a coach." At a few Georgia fans feel revived as fans by the sudden surge when the Richt era was at its bleakest. Not that optimism never a substitute for wins, but for Richt's own sake, six months of good feelings and anticipation is vastly preferable omen going into a make-or-break season than a dismal trudge to the gallows.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.