The Blitz: For Richt, a chance at validation

These are the realities of Mark Richt’s tenure: few men have won like

Georgia’s coach and few have been under more constant scrutiny despite

those victories.

In his 12 seasons Richt boasts a winning

percentage of .750. That trails only four active coaches with at least

seven years under their belts, Boise State’s Chris Petersen (.911), Ohio

State’s Urban Meyer (.835), Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (.804) and TCU’s Gary

Patterson (.773).

But in an era when the SEC has ruled the

college football landscape, winning six straight BCS crowns and seven of

nine of the last nine, the Bulldogs have missed out as Alabama, rival

Florida and LSU have won titles. Then there are Georgia’s lingering

issues with top-10 teams, against whom they’re 2-9 vs. 2007.

Saturday

night at the Georgia Dome, Richt has a chance to change all that; beat

No. 2 Alabama and the Bulldogs will get a shot at their first national

title since 1980 (and against Notre Dame, the team Georgia beat for the

championship).

It’s never been simpler and the stakes have never

been higher under Richt. Never mind the two SEC titles or what will be

the Bulldogs’ fifth conference title game appearance under his watch.

This is about validation, even if Richt won’t say so himself.

“It’s

not about me, it’s about Georgia, it’s about this program, this team,

these young men, this coaching staff,” he said. “I don’t worry too much

about all the personal stuff.

But it is great to be in this

position at this point. You fight like mad every year to get your team

in a position like this. It certainly is a good thing.”

During

those lean years of 2009 and ’10, in which Georgia lost a combined 12

games, Richt and I discussed the perpetual rumblings about his job

security.

“Every coach is on the hot seat,” he said. “Everybody

expects you to win and to play at a high level,” he said. “But you have

to set your standards and your parameters for how you want to operate,

believe in them, then go and compete.”

He’s turned things around,

winning a second straight SEC East title – which seemed unreachable

after that Oct. 6 loss to South Carolina — and when the Bulldogs beat

then-No. 2 Florida 17-9, earned their first win over a top-10 team since

2009 and the first against an SEC team ranked that high in five years.

But

the cynics will say that outside of that win over the Gators, Georgia

reached Atlanta by going 11-1 and 7-1 in the conference behind the

nation’s 60th-ranked schedule

Is this Georgia team different? Is this the year that Richt finally delivers on the biggest stages?

Saturday

night in the Georgia Dome, Richt will be taking on a coach who has done

just that. Alabama’s Nick Saban has three national titles, a statue

outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium and is 10-3 vs. top-10 opponents the

last four years.

When the confetti falls down and an SEC champ is

crowned, it will either be Richt’s moment or another reason for his

fanbase to question if this program hit its glass ceiling long ago.

It may be the most telling and defining game of his career.

Big 12 flashes its depth

The

deepest conference in the nation? The SEC will get most votes for its

assault on the BCS standings but it can’t touch this staggering stat

from the Big 12: Ninety percent of its teams are now bowl eligible.

That’s right, 90.

Kansas at 1-10 is the only school in the

10-team league that didn’t hit the six-win plateau. By comparison, the

ACC has six eligible teams, the Big Ten has seven and the Pac-12 and SEC

have eight each.

With the ACC, Big Ten, and surprisingly the

SEC, unable to qualify enough teams to meet their respective bowl

tie-ins, the Big 12 should benefit.

It’s a different kind of

depth than earlier this season when the conference had five Top 25

teams, including two in the top 10, but in the first year of its

post-realignment lineup the Big 12 has impressed.

Heisman Watching (a ballot in progress)

1. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M, Fr.:

He gave Kyle Field a scare when he grabbed his left knee after a tackle

but Johnny Football returned with a knee brace and put an exclamation

point on a potentially history-making Heisman resume. Manziel broke Cam

Newton’s SEC total offense record of 4,327 yards with 4,600 and most

remarkably, the freshman did it two less games than the 2010 trophy

needed.

2. LB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame, Sr.: For the second

straight year we’ll have a defensive player in New York in Te’o but can

he rival Hugh Green, who was second in 1980, for the best finish by a

strictly defensive player? He now has seven interceptions, which is more

than 17 FBS programs, and went over 100 tackles for the third

consecutive season.

3. QB Collin Klein, Kansas State, Sr.:

A year ago with his biggest rivals’ regular seasons over, Robert

Griffin III parlayed a final game against Texas into his school’s first

Heisman. Now Klein gets the same opportunity, though it seems his

winning is becoming less and less likely. He should at the least join

Michael Bishop in 1998 as the Wildcats’ only finalists.  

Ups and Downs

Up: Notre Dame

Love

them or loathe them, it’s hard to knock what the Fighting Irish have

accomplished at this point. They opened the season unranked and will now

play for a national title, which if they win will make them the first

team to do so since BYU in 1984. Now the question of whether Notre Dame

is really back will be answered against the six-time defending champ

SEC. As Rick Flair told us, “to be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

Down: Louisville/Rutgers

The

beleaguered league missed its chance to build on the hype for a de

facto conference title game as both Louisville and Rutgers lost their

lead-in games to UConn and Pitt, respectively. The Cardinals and Scarlet

Knights’ Thursday night clash will still determine the BCS bowl

representative but it’s now a showdown of two teams who are both outside

the Top 25 in the BCS rankings. It’s not exactly a marquee matchup.

Up: Ohio State

Where

would the 12-0 Buckeyes sit in the national title race? With three wins

over Top 25 teams, none of which ranked higher than 20th when Ohio

State faced them, it would be tough to see it edging out a one-loss SEC

team. But the face remains the Buckeyes are unbeaten in their first year

under Urban Meyer, marking the sixth unbeaten and untied year in the

program’s history and just the second since 1968.

Down: Washington

Is

there a more confounding team than the Huskies? The same squad that

beat Stanford, now one of the hottest teams in the nation, and beat

then-No. 7 Oregon State wound up on the losing end of the biggest

comeback in the 105 years of the Apple Cup. Washington committed 17

penalties for 127 yards in falling to Washington State and gave its

rivals their only Pac-12 win. Steve Sarkisian still has some work to do

to get this program back to legitimacy.

Up: Florida

One

year after finishing third in the SEC East Will Muschamp has Florida in

line for an at-large BCS berth at fourth in the standings. His Gators

delivered a statement in dumping rival Florida State as an offense which

came in ranked 104th in the nation, and which had produced five TDs in

the previous four games, ran for 244 yards vs. the country’s top-ranked

defense.

Down: Ohio

This summer, some pegged the

Bobcats as potential BCS busters. They didn’t disappoint in winning

their first seven games, including at Penn State, and breaking into the

Top 25. Then Ohio went into a tailspin, dropping four of their last five

games and ending the regular season on a three-game losing streak. The

silver lining is that at 8-4 its still likely bowl bound.

Telling stats

4

South Carolina’s 27-17 win over Clemson gave the Gamecocks four

straight wins in the series, equaling their longest streak in the series

from 1951-54.

8 – Taking over a program that was coming

off a devastating scandal, Bill O’Brien became the winningest first-year

coach in Penn State history by going 8-4.

430 – Oregon’s

running game racked up 430 yards against rival Oregon State — which

spent nine weeks ranked in the top five nationally vs. the run –

including 198 by Kenjon Barner.

They said it

“It’s a shame he’s not on the Doak Walker list. That’s kind of ridiculous.”

Stanford coach David Shaw on RB Stepfan Taylor, who despite 1,364 yards

and 11 TDs, didn’t make the finalists for the Doak Walker Award, which

is given to the nation’s top back.

“It’s great to be wearing this hat. But it’s not the hat I want to wear.”

Offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles after Nebraska donned black hats for

clinching a share of the Big Ten Legends Division title and a date with

Wisconsin in the conference championship game.

“I’m going to probably get home some time tomorrow and go out in the street and yell.”

Coach Gary Patterson after TCU knocked off No. 16 Texas 20-13. It was

the Horned Frogs’ first win at DKR Memorial Stadium since 1967.

Crystal ball

Pac-12 Title Game: No. 8 Stanford vs. No. 16 UCLA (Friday)

The

formula is simple for the Cardinal during their six-game winning

streak: dominate the line of scrimmage. They’ve outrushed their

opponents 1,162-320 during this run, including 221-73 in last weekend’s

drubbing of these same Bruins. Expect more of the same as Stanford feeds

Taylor and keys its first trip to the Rose Bowls since 2000.

Prediction: Cardinal 28, Bruins 14

ACC Title Game: Georgia Tech vs. No. 13 Florida State

It’s

strength vs. strength as the Seminoles’ fourth-ranked rush defense

faces the Jackets’ No. 3 rushing attack. Florida State struggled against

the Gators’ ground game and the triple option is always difficult to

prepare for. Here’s thinking the ‘Noles rebound and shut down Paul

Johnson’s offense. A loss will drop the Yellow Jackets to 6-7, but they

could still be bowl bound as a title game participant given there are

only 69 teams currently eligible for 70 spots.

Prediction: Seminoles 30, Yellow Jackets 17

Big Ten Title Game: No. 12 Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

Momentum

isn’t on Wisconsin’s side. The Badgers backed into Indianapolis,

suffering two straight losses to the teams that actually finished ahead

of them in the Legends Division in Ohio State and Penn State. Meanwhile,

the Cornhuskers, winners of six straight, have the balance with the

return of RB Rex Burkhead that should give Wisconsin fits.

Prediction: Cornhuskers 27, Badgers 20

SEC Title Game: No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 2 Alabama (Saturday)

In

a conference that’s predicated by defenses, it was a defender that

fired the first shot as Bulldogs safety Bacarri Rambo told ESPN radio “I

feel like we are more talented. We have better players at each

position, across the board, especially on defense.” As good as these Ds

will be, which offense is more apt to break through? The Tide have the

more potent running game and a QB who rarely makes mistakes, throwing

three picks in the last 15 games. That should be enough to punch a

ticket to Miami.

Prediction: Crimson Tide 20, Bulldogs 14