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Premature Panic Week: Georgia already knows for whom the bell tolls

Since opening on top of the preseason polls three years ago, Georgia has staggered through escalating stages of disappointment, beginning with the kind that comes from blowing a big opportunity in 2008 and continuing last year with the shellshocked that comes from enduring your first losing season in more than a decade. This is a team that's underachieved to various degrees three years in a row, and sent multiple bodies overboard — a defensive coordinator and a pair of assistants, a longtime strength coach — in its efforts to stay afloat. It came into the season as a team that had lost eight of its last ten against ranked opponents, and that lost its last game to Central Florida.

As a testament to the standard Mark Rich has built over the last decade, Georgia also came into the season with its perpetual optimism having just been given a fresh coat of paint. The instate "Dream Team" that signed on February is the most hyped recruiting class of Richt's tenure, complete with the instant headliner, tailback Isaiah Crowell. Richt, having personally refused the runner's-up trophy following the loss in the Liberty Bowl, called the game "a wake-up call" and said in February he felt "revived as a coach." Sophomore Aaron Murray was voted by SEC coaches as the best returning quarterback in the league, one of six Bulldogs they tabbed as first-team All-SEC picks. The preseason polls widely cast UGA as as a top-20 outfit after two years spent almost entirely outside of the polls, if not a top-10 outfit, and as a frontrunner to win the SEC East, 2010 be damned.

Premature Panic Week: Georgia already knows for whom the bell tollsThat vision of Georgia — relatively unchanged since long before Richt got there — officially left the building Saturday at some point in the third quarter, in the midst of a 28-0 run by Boise State. In fact, it ran out screaming and hopped the nearest bus to parts unknown. For the better part of three quarters, the Bulldogs were inconsistent on the ground (the vast majority of their 137 rushing yards came on a pair of wide receiver reverses), unable to protect Aaron Murray in passing situations (he was sacked six times, five of them coming on third and fourth downs) and couldn't get the Bronco offense off the field (Boise earned 24 first downs and held a 7½-minute advantage in time of possession). In one of the most hyped games of the season, the offense looked lethargic, the defense looked confused and even Richt's most consistent defenders began to suspect they were watching the beginning of the end.

And with that, the Bulldogs trudge into what may turn out to be the defining game not only of the season, but of Richt's entire tenure Saturday against South Carolina. If last week was critical to the Bulldogs' pride for the sake of not losing to Boise State in front of the cool kids — even if the Broncos happen to be at least as good as most of them — the Gamecocks command all the cards on the table, right up front: Four years removed from its last serious run at an SEC championship, is Georgia still capable of winning this conference? Of winning this division, in a year when both Florida and Tennessee remain in rebuilding mode? And can Richt possibly fend off the reaper if the answer is "no"?

Richt, of course, is having none of it. Last week, he refused to cast the Boise State game as a referendum on the 2011 season, which could be interpreted as the wisdom of a coach with patience and confidence. This week, at 0-1 with the reigning division champ favored to make it 0-2 — thereby administering a heavy blow to UGA's chances of taking its first division title since 2005 in the process — his "just another game" routine veers dangerously close to making him sound like a coach in denial:

When he got a somewhat loaded question, Richt decided to have some fun with it. The question: "After the game on Saturday, was your response more encouragement and trying to be positive or have you reached a point where you've thrown chairs and really tried to light a fire?"

His answer: "Everybody want me to snap? Is that what they want? You all want to see me snap, is that what it is? Yeah? Well, we don't discuss what happens in the locker room. But if you guys want me to throw a table or something I'll do that, maybe smash a camera, if that makes everybody feel better."

Reporters laughed and Richt did, too. But he has encountered a similar line of questioning for much of the last four days. In fact, six questions during Wednesday's teleconference had something to do with his coaching status or the mood of his team or the fanbase.

"We're just coaching ball, OK?," Richt said. "You guys want to make things bigger than they are. The bottom line is like anything in life, you've got to control what you can and that is my attitude and my effort and our team's attitude and effort. That's true every season. … Everybody's locked in, everybody's working hard and everybody's confident we're going to have a good ballgame."

Like all pregame decisions, this one will go on trial on Saturday, when Richt's apparent lack of urgency will be revealed as either the foresight of a steady, veteran hand that knows how to weather a storm or the out-of-touch complacency of a captain who's lost his edge. If it's the former, Georgia will beat an upstart it's traditionally owned at home to get the ball rolling on a resurgent run at the SEC East title. If it's the latter, every subsequent Saturday is at risk of becoming the weekend that it all fell apart.

In the meantime, for Georgia fans, the worst part isn't that they feel like they've been at the same crossroads before. It's that they have no confidence anymore that their team is going to get back on the right path. This deep into the woods, Saturday may be Richt's last chance to prove them wrong.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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