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UGA and Richt return to the scene of the collapse

By Mark Bradley, myAJC Sports Columnist

The season hadn’t gone to script. Georgia lost in Columbia to what would be revealed as a mediocre South Carolina team; Todd Gurley was suspended for selling his signature. Even so, the Bulldogs arrived at EverBank Field on Nov. 1, 2014, with everything to gain.

Florida came to Jacksonville at 3-3. It had lost at Alabama by 21 points and to Missouri in Gainesville by 29 in a game that saw the Tigers muster 119 yards. A loss to Georgia on that Saturday – Will Muschamp was 0-3 against his alma mater – figured to spawn a coaching change perhaps as early as Sunday.

Final score: Florida 38, Georgia 20.

Of the 191 Georgia games Mark Richt has coached, this was the most inexplicable – and the most deflating. Even without the still-suspended Gurley, the Bulldogs were lopsided favorites. (Sans Gurley, Georgia had beaten Missouri and Arkansas by the aggregate score of 79-32.) And it wasn’t as if the Bulldogs didn’t Come Ready To Play: They led 7-0 after 21 ½ minutes. Then Florida turned a fake field goal into a tying touchdown. Next thing you knew, the Gators led 31-7.

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Florida would finish the season seventh-best in the 14-team SEC in rushing. On this unaccountable day, the Gators rushed for 418 yards. Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia’s defensive coordinator, said afterward that Florida ran the same two plays again and again. How does such a thing happen? How does a good team go so bad at the worst possible moment?

Had the Bulldogs beaten Florida and the rest of the conference season played out the way it did, they’d have won the SEC East. Had they won the SEC East, they’d have entered their game against Georgia Tech on a high, not the low they experienced watching Missouri claim the division the day before. Had a division-winning Georgia not lost to Tech, it would have entered the SEC Championship game at 11-1. Had an 11-1 Georgia upset Alabama, the Bulldogs would have graced the inaugural College Football Playoff.

For 13 years, it was possible to view Richt’s tenure as a case study in bad timing and rotten luck. In 2002, Georgia went 13-1 but didn’t play for the BCS title; LSU won it the next year with a record of 13-1. In 2007, the Bulldogs lost twice and didn’t play for the BCS title; LSU, likewise with two losses, won the thing. In 2012, Georgia fell just short of an SEC title and in all likelihood a national championship when Aaron Murray’s deflected pass was caught by Chris Conley at the Alabama 5 as time expired.

Bad timing. Rotten luck. Surely someday everything would break right. That was my belief pretty much all along. (I wobbled a bit in 2010 and when the 2011 team started 0-2.) For most of those 13 years, I saw no reason why Richt/Georgia couldn’t win a national title. On Nov. 1, 2014, I found my reason: Championship programs don’t lose games like that.

I’ve since wondered if I’d made too much of one lousy day, but I witnessed a similar lousy day when Alabama came to Athens on Oct. 3. There’s a reason this is regarded as the nation’s flagship underachiever. To borrow from Steve Spurrier’s voiced-in-Jacksonville line: Georgia gets all these recruits, but what happens to them? How has Auburn, which Georgia has beaten seven of the past nine years, played for national titles in the other two? Why are the Bulldogs never the ones to rise up?

A year later, they head back to EverBank to face a different Florida with a different coach. (Muschamp was fired 15 days after beating Georgia.) The Gators are a narrow favorite, but they’re without their No. 1 quarterback. If the Bulldogs win Saturday, they can win the SEC East. If they win the SEC East, they’d be a Dome upset from the school’s first conference title in a decade. Georgia probably wouldn’t get into the playoff with two losses, but still: An SEC championship would alter the narrative regarding this coach and this program.

Georgia needs to prove to the world it can still win a big game. A year ago, Jacksonville was the place where a season — and more than just a season — went sour. On Saturday, it can be the site of some measure of redemption.

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