Mark Richt, Georgia make perfect underdawgs to upset Alabama in SEC title game

The betting public has established Georgia as a significant underdog (7.5 points) to Alabama in Saturday's SEC title game. In terms of winning outright, which is all that matters to Georgia, there is limited support. Bama is a better than 3-to-1 (-310) favorite on the money line, according to William Hill US, operators of 150 sports books in Nevada.

The majority, if not almost all, of the pundits are already aligned with the Crimson Tide and the trend is expected to continue. Does anyone expect Lee Corso to put a Bulldog on his head Saturday morning in Centennial Park? There's already plenty of talk about whether Notre Dame can score on Alabama's defense in the BCS title game, the one that's more than five weeks away.

This isn't necessarily disrespect. Georgia may be 11-1 and ranked third in the nation, may boast a strong-armed quarterback in Aaron Murray and may have a likely NFL superstar at linebacker in Jarvis Jones. They also played just two teams with more than eight victories and lost one of those games by four touchdowns.

Oh, and 'Bama is 'Bama. Nick Saban is still walking that sideline.

So with what is essentially a national semifinal coming, No. 2 vs. No. 3, a matchup of what should be relatively even teams, played in Georgia's home state, the sentiments are almost all in one direction, and it isn't toward Mark Richt's program.

"I really don't care much what the predictions are," Richt said Wednesday.

Why not?

"It really does not matter and does not have a bearing on the game," he said.

This is true, of course and exactly what many coaches would say, but Richt isn't engaging in coachspeak either. He means it. He doesn't care. Some coaches would try to spin it around and use the disrespect card as a badge of honor. Yet Richt isn't seeking motivation as an underdog. He isn't going with the old, us-against-the-world ploy, at least not publicly.

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He doesn't care. No, really, he doesn't care.

Because Mark Richt almost never cares about what everyone else thinks of his program or how he runs his program or what they think his program is capable of doing, good or bad, on the field or off. And it is that attitude that got Georgia back to the brink again.

There are only three coaches still in the hunt for a national title, and Richt is the only one who had significant parts of his fan base either crying for his firing or expecting it to be inevitable just two years ago.

That was December 2010, at the completion of a dreadful 6-7 season, complete with a loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl where the Bulldogs managed a pathetic two field goals against a Conference USA defense. The team was hampered by the suspension of three players, and the program's first losing season since 1996 came on the heels of an already worrisome 8-5 campaign. Even worse Auburn, coached by Gene Chizik of all people, was about to win a national title starting a superman quarterback from outside Atlanta.

Momentum wasn't exactly on Richt's side. Everyone has seen this act, a coach a decade into his tenure, a losing season following a subpar one? It was the definition of a hot seat.

"We've got to make change," Richt said after the Liberty Bowl debacle. "We've got to make sure it doesn't happen again in the future."

The changes, however, actually weren't changes in how things were done. They were just a reaffirmation that the Richt plan should be followed, only better. He didn't begin cutting corners, changing recruiting tactics or listening to skeptics. He just did the exact same thing he'd done. Same principles. Same commitment.

If it was good enough, it was good enough. And he never doubted it was good enough.

Then the 2011 team started 0-2, with losses to Boise State in Atlanta and South Carolina in Athens. They gave up a combined 80 points. The drumbeat of doom was nearly deafening. Richt didn't waver.

"There wasn't any panic," he said. "We spent our entire year having to win every game to get to [the SEC title game]."

They did just that and despite a loss to LSU in the SEC title game, it was a bounce-back season.

Now here they are again, Richt up from the ashes, with another chance to shock the college football world.

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It hasn't been storybook, but that's because those don't exist. There have been setbacks and challenges, because there always are. A top recruit in that 2011 class, Isaiah Crowell wound up arrested on weapons charges and bounced from the program. Everyone just assumed it was another Georgia discipline problem. Richt shrugs that off and says public issues are the price of discipline.

Wild Story of the Week
Wild Story of the Week

Arizona State at Arizona

One wacky play in the final minutes helped Arizona State complete its comeback win against rival Arizona.

After ASU took a 34-27 lead, the Wildcats were looking to tie the score with a late drive. On a fourth-down play at the Sun Devils' 44, Arizona quarterback Matt Scott appeared to hit wide receiver Austin Hill on a slant pass for a first down, but the ball deflected off Hill's hands. Arizona State defensive back Robert Nelson grabbed the deflection at the 30 and headed to the end zone.

Eluding Wildcats by getting to the sideline near the 50, Nelson had an open field ahead of him. Scott managed to catch up with Nelson at the Arizona 10, causing Nelson to stumble as he cut back. Lineman Chris Putton missed a wide-open tackle from behind and flew past Nelson before receiver Garic Wharton and Scott finally combined to take Nelson down at the goal line.

The play led to an easy score for the Sun Devils, who eventually claimed a 41-34 win over the Wildcats.

– Mike Patton

"Some people might say, 'He's losing control of the program because all these guys are suspended,'" Richt said. "And I'm saying, 'No, it's 100 percent the opposite.' We maintain control of the program by disciplining our players."

If you're consistent, you can survive anything, he believes. If not, "it might work in the short term, for that game or a season, but in the long run you're going to have problems," Richt said. "[Your players] are going to quit on you. They are going to think you are a fraud."

The 52-year-old wasn't talking directly about Chizik, but he might as well have. Chizik is now fired. Richt still has a shot at the title. In just two years the pendulum swung back.

There's more, of course. He never decided 130-hour work weeks were the solution. He maintains as regular a family life as possible with his wife and four children, including two adopted from a Ukrainian orphanage – "I'm as involved as I can be at school and go to Little League football. Go to Publix like everybody else and shop."

And his deep devotion to his faith has never faltered. He says it is the base for his unwavering belief that things done right will work out.

This is still college football, of course. Nothing is clear and true as even the best-intentioned wants. Alabama is more than capable of simply outplaying Georgia. With Richt, the charm is that whether he was winning the SEC or losing the Liberty Bowl or dealing with jokes about suspended stars, he held firm on doing things his way.

Everyone was telling him different, of course. His career arc was trending poorly. The writing appeared on the wall. And the string of rivals lifting crystal footballs suggested his plan had limits.

But he didn't care. He never does. So predict against the Bulldogs. Bet against the Bulldogs. Throw an elephant head on to the cheering delight of the Tide fans.

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He hasn't kept coming and coming for that mountaintop, written off and risen back up, by concerning himself with external views.

"What matters is playing the game," he said Wednesday.

Win or lose Saturday, Mark Richt's opinion on that isn't changing. Ever.

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