ATLANTA — LSU’s Les Miles and Georgia’s Mark Richt paused for a few moments Friday to take the traditional pre-Southeastern Conference Championship Game photo with the SEC trophy.
Going into this season, they seemed like one of the more unlikely parings for this particular grip and grin session — or this title match.
Miles was coming off an encouraging 11-2 season after less-than-pleasing 8-5 and 9-4 records in 2008 and 2009, but key losses at running back, on defense and special teams made his Tigers a preseason SEC West underdog to Alabama.
For Richt, it simply seemed as though things were coming apart. His Bulldogs limped into 2011 coming off a 6-7 record in 2010, Georgia’s worst season in its first 10 during Richt’s tenure.
An 0-2 start against Boise State in the Georgia Dome and South Carolina only seemed to confirm the notion that Richt was on his way out.
And yet here they are, directing two of the nation’s hottest teams — 12-0 LSU and 10-2 Georgia as they vie for the SEC title at 3 p.m. CST Saturday on CBS.
“I felt very good about the football team,” Richt said. “Then all of a sudden we’re 0-2 and coming off a 6-7 season and all the things that I knew were swirling around, I’m sure, intensified. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, quite frankly, but I knew it was out there.
“I’m just real proud of how everybody stayed the course.”
Miles kept his team on track despite multiple player suspensions, the late-summer diagnosis of then offensive coordinator (now quarterbacks coach) Steve Kragthorpe with Parkinson’s Disease, and a recent smoldering quarterback controversy.
Now instead of questions about his future, Miles has lately been getting peppered by questions as to whether his No. 1-ranked team will be motivated to win Saturday considering it may well have already sewn up a berth in the Jan. 9 BCS National Championship Game.
“I have given little thought to that,” Miles said. “I do know that’s an issue out there for other folks.
“It’s not one for us. We’re very, very focused on the next game and a very quality Georgia opponent.”
Richt endorsed a scenario that he wouldn’t mind seeing play out: having his team beat LSU for the SEC title, earn a berth in the Sugar Bowl and let LSU still play for the BCS title, possibly against Alabama.
But that doesn’t mean Richt thinks the Tigers will be looking past his team to playing for the BCS championship.
“I know that’s not what they’re focusing on, because you don’t go 12-0 unless you can focus on every game,” Richt said. “I understand the importance of it. I know that they’re doing that.”
Miles maintained that his players have a strong desire to win this game.
“This is ambitious team,” Miles said, “a team that wanted to be where they’re at. They’ve earned that right. They’ve put to the perimeter a bunch of distractions and frankly, I think that’s why they’re in the position that they’re in.
“They wanted to be here. Nothing was going to deter them and they’ve arrived.”
Richt understands the Tigers’ ambitions considering what’s at stake.
“The Southeastern Conference is an awesome conference in that if you win the league, you know you’ve done something special,” he said. “Your fans know you’ve done something special. It’s not easy to get here, and it’s not easy to win this league.”
Miles was not asked about potentially looming academic eligibility questions for quarterback Jarrett Lee, a subject he danced around Monday at a news conference in Baton Rouge.
Richt did some similar peddling when it came to the health of starting tailback Isaiah Crowell. The freshman was held out of last week’s Georgia Tech game with an ankle injury.
“I’m not telling,” Richt said with a laugh when asked who would start for his team at tailback. “I didn’t tell our local media guys, so we’ll wait until the game.
“Game-day decision. How about that one? That’s a good one.”
Georgia has it pretty good in terms of who its head coach is, Miles said.
“I do understand criticism, but how much better are you going to get than Mark Richt?” Miles asked. “That’s a great coach.”
Saturday night, one of the coaches will be posing alone with the SEC trophy.