The last time Georgia coach Mark Richt led his Bulldogs into the Georgia Dome, the seat beneath him went from hot to hotter.
Richt was one game into his 11th season at Georgia, but a thorough beating by Boise State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic had him answering questions about his job security.
It got no better the following week, when South Carolina held off Georgia in a wild 45-42 win to give the Gamecocks the inside track toward a return to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
At that point, it appeared Richt may not last the season.
“We didn’t worry too much about it,” Richt said of himself and his family. “I know that’s kind of hard to believe, but we’ve just really got a lot of faith in the Lord. We feel like, if He wanted me to be at Georgia, I’d be at Georgia. If He didn’t, then we’d move on and do something else.”
Richt will be back in the Georgia Dome, the place he coached the season opener, Saturday with a chance to win his third SEC title.
Following the abysmal start, Georgia has won 10 straight. The team has gotten hotter and hotter. The coach’s seat has gotten cooler and cooler.
“It’s been fun to turn it around and see these players and these coaches enjoy the fruits of all their labor,” Richt said. “It’s a battle. It’s a grind whether you win or lose. When you win, it’s a lot more fun.”
The first eight years of his tenure, Richt and the Bulldogs were having a blast.
Richt, who took over at Georgia in 2001 after helping Florida State reach national acclaim as a longtime Bobby Bowden assistant, began a run in 2002 that included two SEC championships, three SEC Championship Game appearances and four straight seasons of double-digit wins.
In 2007, the Bulldogs went 11-2, clobbering Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl to finish at No. 2 in the national rankings.
They entered 2008 with quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Knowshon Moreno and a host of returning starters and were ranked first in the preseason.
At that point, Richt was 72-19 through eight seasons.
But the 2008 team failed to meet the great expectations, finishing the regular season 9-3. In the offseason, Stafford and Moreno left school early for the NFL. The Bulldogs slid to 8-5 in 2009, then to 6-7 — with a Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida — last season.
When the losses to Boise State and South Carolina got this Georgia team off to its 0-2 start, it was hard not to wonder if the Bulldogs were headed for another long year.
“This team is a very young team, and I think we definitely have matured during the season,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “We’ve just taken it week by week. We feel good with the progress we’ve made and the direction we’re heading right now.”
Murray, only a sophomore, is operating the passing game like a seasoned veteran. The defense is among the SEC leaders in most categories.
And so Georgia is back in Atlanta, right where it was three months ago, with a chance to give Richt a signature win.
“I think we were a team that certainly needed to improve throughout the year,” Richt said. “I think we have improved. I don’t know to what level we’re at right now, but we’re a lot better than we started this year.”