Bulldogs program at crossroads

ATHENS, Ga. -- Aside from the veteran members of Mark Richt's coaching staff, nobody has experienced a wider spectrum of Georgia football's Richt-led heights and depths than the Bulldogs' fifth-year seniors.

The six remaining members of Georgia's 2007 signing class arrived in time to join a team that started slowly that fall, only to flatten all of its remaining opponents en route to a No. 2 final ranking and a No. 1 spot to open the following season.

It seemed as though Richt's program was hitting its stride, but the 2008 season instead was the beginning of its decline. The Bulldogs suffered three humiliating losses that season and five the next, before finishing last season with a 6-7 record -- the program's first losing mark since 1996.

Although punter Drew Butler, who redshirted during the 2007 season, hopes to become a sports commentator after his football career, expert analysis is not required to assess the state of the program.

"You can't really shy away from the fact that it's declining," Butler said. "We were at the mountaintop, but we didn't think it was at the mountaintop in 2007. We've kinda been in a downfall since then."

Skyrocketing opponent point totals led Richt to dismiss three-quarters of his defensive staff after the 2009 season, followed by an overhaul of the strength and conditioning staff at the end of 2010.

Despite the changes, however, Georgia opened the season with losses to No. 4 Boise State and No. 11 South Carolina, falling out of the polls after opening at No. 19, and furthering speculation that the program's next staff change might be in the head chair.

"They have enough players to be a 10-win team, but I honestly think its their lack of discipline and their vanilla offense and their inability to make in-game adjustments on both sides of the ball -- all three aspects of which point to coaching," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. "I hate to say it, but I've been thinking it for two-plus years now, and finally when you start to look at it and piece it all together, I just think it's becoming obvious.

"I think that this team consistently gets overcoached, and the more coaches I talk to in the SEC that face off against Georgia and just are not at all concerned about what they're going to see from a schematic standpoint, the less I believe in this coaching staff with Mark Richt and his group."

Reactions to decline

McShay is not alone in that assessment. The criticism aimed at Richt and his staff has intensified from whispers to shouts, peaking after the Bulldogs' season-opening loss against Boise State dropped their record to 14-14 since the start of the 2009 season.

Concerns about the direction of Georgia football have reached the heights of the athletic department, as evidenced by two brief comments after last Friday's UGA Athletic Association board of directors quarterly meeting.

As the normally sunny board approached the end of the meeting, board member Tommy Lawhorne went on record saying, "There are many of us who are really concerned about the status of the football program. Yet we have confidence in [athletic director] Greg McGarity to get us to where we want to be."

Board member Bob Bishop added, "I'll echo that."

It was just a small sampling of the feedback, both positive and negative, that McGarity has recently received on the subject.

"You get a lot of comments both ways. So it runs the gamut on good, bad, we're with you, we're pulling [for you]," McGarity said. "I think it's just the normal emotions that people have, whether you're winning or losing. When you're winning, people are always patting you on the back and things of that nature, but I think it's been really all over the map."

The negativity actually subsided somewhat after Saturday's 45-42 loss to South Carolina. The Bulldogs had opened a season 0-2 for the first time since 1996, but it was not from a lack of effort or intensity. The Gamecocks scored three easy touchdowns off turnovers, adding a fourth when defensive end Melvin Ingram shocked the Bulldogs with a 68-yard run for a touchdown on a fake punt.

Much like the fan base, which came into the game expecting the worst, Richt came away feeling encouraged about what the rest of the season holds.

"There's so many things bad that happened to us, it would have been easy to fold up our tent and lay down and die, but no one did," Richt said. "Actually, I love this team. [I'm] proud of them, and time will prove that we're going to be a really good team."

Early days

Richt restored Georgia's football reputation shortly after his arrival in 2001, winning the Bulldogs' first SEC title in 20 years in 2002, his second season on the job. Another SEC East crown followed in 2003 and then a second SEC title in 2005, along with double-digit wins in five of his first seven seasons.

In the 2008 preseason, with a lineup full of future NFL talent, including eventual first-round draft picks Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green, the Bulldogs provided little indication that a decline was approaching.

Stafford, Moreno and linebacker Danell Ellerbe graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's preseason college football issue, and numerous polls and publications predicted that 2008 would finally be the season that Richt broke through with a national title.

Instead, Georgia was sluggish at the start and injuries expedited their fall. They won their first four games, but when ESPN's "College GameDay" came to Athens for the first time in 10 years for a top-10 matchup between Georgia and undefeated Alabama, the Bulldogs' collapse was quick and spectacular.

Wearing the previously lucky black jerseys that debuted in emotional 2007 wins against Auburn and Hawaii, the Bulldogs trailed the Crimson Tide 31-0 at halftime. It was the first of three times that season that Georgia fans felt the team quit -- the others being losses to rivals Florida and Georgia Tech -- and that problem might have been greater than any of the coaching staff's shortcomings.

It was the team leadership through the last few years that most concerned Kelin Johnson, the defensive captain and vocal leader of the 2007 squad.

"One of the hardest things is walking around this city and to be around these players and to see some of them taking things for granted, some of the guys who are just happy to put the 'G' on or to wear a Georgia football shirt downtown to pick up women," Johnson said. "They want to put a 'G' on so people will recognize them. So what? The 'G' doesn't make you. As soon as these players realize the 'G' doesn't make the person, the person makes the 'G,' that's how they know Georgia's so much better than everybody else."

Lessons from 2007

If Johnson's senior season can teach anything to the latest crop of Bulldogs, it's that a slow start doesn't have to ruin a season.

After getting off to a poor start, captains Johnson, Thomas Brown, Fernando Velasco, Brandon Coutu and the other seniors decided that highly competitive practices would lead to a rebound.

"I remember getting in dogfights almost every day because it was so competitive," Johnson said. "I'm not saying that they're not competitive in practice. But I just remember how easy it was in the ballgame for the rest of that season.

"We took account to make sure we all watched film. We took account that everybody made workouts. We took account that we all practiced hard. ... That's why we won. That's why we crawled ourselves out of a hole -- because accountability will take you a long way."

Following a 2006 season that included losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina early in 2007 and suffered a humiliating midseason loss at Tennessee, where they trailed 28-0 at halftime.

The Bulldogs had to rally from a 17-7 halftime deficit at Vanderbilt the following week, winning 20-17 after a game-saving fumble recovery at the goal line allowed Coutu to kick the winning field goal at the final buzzer.

It seemed as if Georgia was on the brink of a collapse, but the Bulldogs came out of a bye week with a rousing win against hated Florida, punctuated by a team-wide end zone celebration after Moreno's game-opening touchdown.

The Bulldogs rode the wave of emotion from that win to a seven-game winning streak to end the season, finishing with a rout of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.

It provided a lesson that did not go unnoticed by the Bulldogs' freshmen, now fifth-year seniors.

"The energy we had that year in our program from top to bottom, from summer workouts to preseason camp, through the season to the bowl game, was just ridiculous," said tight end Aron White, another 2007 freshman. "I'm proud to say I was a member of that team and that I played with those guys. Those are guys that I'll remember for the rest of my life as being tremendous leaders."

White said he doesn't know how to adequately assess what has happened within the program since his freshman year -- "I don't think anybody can point at one thing and say, 'This is the reason right here why we're not where we used to be,' " he said -- but noted that he sees signs of improved leadership.

Along with players such as center Ben Jones, cornerback Brandon Boykin and quarterback Aaron Murray, White said he hopes to be regarded as a leader in the same way he looked up to Johnson, Brown and Velasco as a freshman.

"There's definitely guys who are in those leadership positions who, hopefully they'll step up and continue to lead this team. I think they've done a great job this offseason, and I think we did our best on the field and for whatever reason we didn't get it done. Hopefully that leadership and that drive and the work we've done this offseason will carry over and start showing up on Saturdays."

What next?

This is not the first time Richt's Georgia team has had its back against the wall, but the residual buildup from previous failings has pushed the coach's job security to its most vulnerable point.

The 10-6 loss to UCF in last year's Liberty Bowl sealed Richt's first losing season, and the Bulldogs' stumble out of the gate this season against Boise State escalated fans' negativity to levels previously unreached with Richt as Georgia's coach.

Richt's players have heard the criticism as well, from inside and outside the program.

"People say Georgia and it doesn't strike that same feeling in your opponents' hearts that it used to, and that's something that hurts us a little bit," White said. "Definitely, guys who've been here during better times take that as a personal shot. It's something that we really want to come out and disprove.

"Obviously we didn't get off to a very good start, but at the end, that's the goal. I don't want to be known as the team that fell off and was the end of the Mark Richt era, or whatever you want to call it. That's definitely not something I want to hang my hat on and have associated with the time that I was at Georgia."

White and his teammates know that winning is a requirement to prevent that outcome, and he said he is proud that the team erased the recent disappointments from its memory before performing much more effectively against South Carolina.

"Last year was definitely the lowest point since I've been at Georgia. Losing that bowl game was like a dagger, something that you heard all offseason and that really set the tone for some of the changes that have been made around here," White said. "We're working and we're trying and I think we're taking positive steps, and we just need to help translate it a little better onto the field."

Despite Saturday's loss, their coach also sees better times ahead for his team. With a considerable number of freshmen and sophomores playing, Richt predicted that this could be another Georgia team that goes on a hot streak as the season progresses.

"There's enough young people out there we're counting on that we will get better exponentially, I believe," Richt said as the team prepares for Saturday's game agaisnt Coastal Carolina. "I think this team is gonna be a very good football team before it's over with. We've got to make whatever corrections we need to and get back on the winning track here."

For Richt's sake, the Bulldogs had better beat the Chanticleers (2-0), who went 6-6 last year and were eliminated in the first round of the FCS playoffs. Without a win Saturday, and victories in the vast majority of the Bulldogs' remaining games, Richt's case to remain atop the program won't be particularly convincing.

Richt knows that as well as anyone, but he still believes the Bulldogs can salvage this season -- and extend his tenure at Georgia.

"I think the Eastern Division is gonna be decided way down the road, and I think we're gonna be in the middle of it," Richt said. "I think that everybody needs to just kind of wait and see what happens, because I think we're going to become an outstanding football team before it's over."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.