KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Mark Richt has been around the SEC long enough to know how quickly things can change.
He’s also been around long enough to win 100 games.
And in the dog-eat-dog world of the SEC, simply making it to 100 games as a head coach is an accomplishment.
“I’m just glad I’m here to enjoy it,” said Richt, whose Bulldogs handed him his 100th career victory on Saturday night with a 20-12 dissection of Tennessee in Neyland Stadium.
Only a few short weeks ago, it was difficult for Richt to enjoy much of anything.
Georgia was 0-2 after losing to Boise State and South Carolina to open the season, and the climate was such that an executive board member (Tommy Lawhorne) of the UGA Athletic Association was making unsolicited comments at an open meeting about having confidence in athletic director Greg McGarity to “get us where we want to be.”
Well, where the Bulldogs are is sitting atop the Eastern Division standings in a tie with South Carolina and having a very manageable schedule the rest of the way.
“After that South Carolina loss, people were throwing us out with the trash,” Georgia senior cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “We all felt like we still had what it took to be champs, and we’re on the right track right now.”
Indeed they are, and while it wasn’t perfect Saturday night on Rocky Top, the Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1) rocked the Vols in the third quarter to pull away and win their fourth consecutive game.
While Tennessee managed just 11 yards on 11 offensive plays in the third quarter, Georgia scored a touchdown on its first possession of the third quarter to snap a 6-6 halftime tie and broke the game open with another touchdown on its second possession.
Backed up on their own 7, the Bulldogs called freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell's number, and he sprinted past Tennessee cornerback Marsalis Teague for a 71-yard catch.
Two plays later, fellow freshman Isaiah Crowell raced 17 yards for a touchdown, and suddenly, that same Georgia team that was “thrown out with the trash” a few weeks ago was in business.
“We’re coming,” said Mitchell, who pulled his hamstring on the play. “We’re going to keep working, and we’re going to keep doing what it takes to get where we want to go.”
Richt said afterward that he didn’t think Mitchell’s hamstring injury was too serious, although Richt said Mitchell might be iffy next week at Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs are off that following week and then face Florida on Oct. 29 in Jacksonville.
Having already lost to South Carolina, Georgia would need the Gamecocks to lose another game somewhere along the way. The Gamecocks own the head-to-head tiebreaker right now.
But four of the six teams in the East have already lost at least two conference games.
“It’s a long season. You never know what can happen in the SEC, and you’re never really out of it,” said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who was 15-of-25 for 227 yards, wasn’t sacked and didn’t throw an interception.
“We’ve got to keep chugging. We’re still not in control right now of our own destiny. We can’t worry about that. We have to worry about Vanderbilt next week and continue to get wins.”
The best news for the Bulldogs is that they don’t have to play any of the three Western Division heavyweights the rest of the way. They avoid Alabama, Arkansas and LSU, and the only true road game they have left is at Vanderbilt.
South Carolina, meanwhile, still has to play at Mississippi State, at Tennessee and at Arkansas.
“We’re in the race, and that’s exciting for us, exciting for the fans, exciting for me personally,” said Richt, who was doused with Gatorade by his players after the game.
A big part of Richt’s excitement stems from how much his team has improved since that 35-21 loss to Boise State to open the season and the way it stuck together when so many people were talking more about Richt’s future than they were about any future this team might have.
“If this were the second year of my career at Georgia, all this stuff wouldn’t even be cropping up,” Richt reasoned. “We had two years that weren’t very exciting, last year especially.”
He admits now that his team wasn’t ready for that opener, at least not ready to beat a team as experienced and talented as Boise State.
But in the 45-42 loss to South Carolina that next week at home, Richt said he could see a ray of sunshine. The entire team could.
“We knew we played well enough that we could compete in the Eastern Division,” Richt said. “We didn’t like being 0-2, but we weren’t down on ourselves. We were thinking more about the possibilities of what could be rather than what we may have lost.
“Somebody asked me how we turned it around. Sometimes you have to rally the troops somehow. We never had to rally the troops. The troops were already there ready and fighting and believing. We have great chemistry and a great bunch of guys. We’ve just been fighting hard.”
And all the while, his defense just seems to get better every week.
In their last four games, the Bulldogs have allowed just two defensive touchdowns. The past three starting quarterbacks they’ve faced haven’t finished the game. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray left the game in the final minutes with an injured thumb on Saturday.
Bray entered the game red-hot and having thrown at least two touchdown passes in 10 consecutive games. He didn’t throw any against the Bulldogs.
The Vols ended up throwing it 40 times, because the Bulldogs stuffed their run. Tennessee finished with minus-20 yards on 23 attempts.
“I know this: To win in this league, you’ve got to play good defense and hold people to low numbers on the road,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “If you do that, you’re going to have a chance to be in every game you’re in.
“I think we’ve played better, and I think the guys are getting more confident and they’ve embraced their roles.”
That’s not all they’ve embraced. They’ve also embraced being right back in the East race.
“Now we’ve got to finish this thing off,” Mitchell said.