Photo: Mark Richt
Now that Georgia coach Kirby Smart has guided Mark Richt’s former players to a College Football Playoff berth, Richt must prove Thomas Wolfe wrong.
He’s gone home to Miami to show he can indeed win big games and thus guide his alma mater to a CFP berth. The Hurricanes are happy with him, too, having extended his contract through 2023.
In Richt’s 15 Georgia seasons, he won plenty. The Ws were racked up at a 74-percent clip (145-51), but big games were his stumbling block. Richt won or shared the SEC East titles six times but captured the SEC Championship only twice -- in 2002 and 2005.
Those conference titles were long ago in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. Worse, in neither season were the Bulldogs selected to play in the national championship (under the old Bowl Championship Series format).
Richt kept his job until griping Georgia fans loaded his back with the last straw in 2015. A 9-3 record included three SEC losses.
With Richt fired, Smart inherited a cornucopia of NFL talent. In the 2018 NFL Draft three Bulldogs were first-round picks, two more in the third and a sixth player went in round No. 6. In addition, three more signed as undrafted free agents.
The nine NFL prospects:
--- LB Roquan smith, first round, No. 8, Bears
--- OL Isaiah Wynn, first round, No. 23, Patriots
--- RB Sony Michel, first round, No. 31, Patriots
--- RB Nick Chubb, second round, No. 35, Browns
--- LB Lorenzo Carter, third round, No. 66, Giants
--- WR Javon Sims, seventh round, No. 224, Bears
--- Free agents: Davin Bellamy, OLB; Aaron Davis, DB; John Atkins, DT.
Although Smart’s first season in 2016 concluded with a drop off to an 8-5 mark, what matters now is he has shown Georgia fans he can quench their thirst for big victories.
A win at Notre Dame in the second week helped propel the Bulldogs, modestly ranked at No. 15 at the time, to the SEC East title. They were No.1 by the time Georgia beat Auburn for the SEC title. Next, the Bulldogs defeated Oklahoma in the CFP semifinal.
But SEC West runner-up Alabama made the most of its second chance with a CFP berth. The Crimson Tide beat Georgia in the national championship game, 26-23.
Initially, Richt kept alive a buyers-remorse story line that Georgia might miss him.
First, his 9-4 record in 2016 topped Smart’s 8-5. In 2017, the Hurricanes started 10-0 to win the ACC Coastal title and earn a ranking as high as No. 2.
But Miami, which lost running back Mark Walton to a knee injury, dropped their final three games to Pitt in the regular-season finale, Clemson in the ACC title game and Wisconsin in Orange Bowl. Walton was one of six NFL draft picks, with one in the third, two in the fourth and one each in the fifth, sixth and seventh (Walton was taken in the fourth).
So what now?
Richt is only 58 years old and can recruit as much talent to Miami as he landed at Georgia. Miami is a No. 8 in the ESPN “Way-Too-Early” poll, although it should be noted ACC rival Clemson is No. 1 (Alabama is No. 2 and Georgia No. 3).
Richt said after spring football his team needs to be more physical, especially with downfield blocking, to improve in 2018.
“I think guys need to rise to the occasion and make plays when they count the most,” Richt said. “We had some moments of that, but we've got to do it on a more consistent basis.”
That, of course, is the mark of a coach that wins big game.
For now, Miami fans are happy Richt won an ACC division title, but for how long? The Hurricanes also have a history as an unforgiving fan base.
The pressure to win big games has clearly jumped on Richt’s back again. Can he prove Thomas Wolfe wrong?
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