It's a 'fine line' for Georgia's Mark Richt

Georgia’s Mark Richt is on the brink of winning his second consecutive SEC East Division championship and taking the Bulldogs to their second straight SEC championship game.

A victory Saturday over Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium would punch Georgia’s ticket to Atlanta.

It also would quiet some of Richt’s critics, at least until he loses again.

I jokingly tell people all the time that you’re always on the hot seat in the SEC. But in Richt’s case, I’m starting to believe that he’ll never truly get off of it unless he wins a national championship.

An SEC championship also would help, especially if Georgia could upset an unbeaten and No. 1 Alabama, but a divisional championship isn’t going to satisfy anybody.

Dawgs fans are hankering for a lot juicier bone than simply being a part of the SEC championship-game festivities.

As one Georgia fan wrote to me recently in an email, 10-win seasons don’t mean a thing if you’re not winning championships, not playing in BCS bowls and not beating the best teams on your schedule.

It’s true that Georgia’s last SEC championship came in 2005, and it’s also true that the Bulldogs’ last trip to a BCS bowl was following the 2007 regular season, when they routed Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.

Five years or more in the SEC is a long time. It’s a lot like dog years, and patience in this league amounts to giving a coach an extra day or two to clean out his office after being fired.

Now, nobody’s suggesting that Richt will be fired if he doesn’t win an SEC championship or get the Bulldogs to a BCS bowl this season. But you can bet that the whole “Richt has reached his ceiling” debate will heat right back up again among many in the Georgia fan base if the Bulldogs fail to win an SEC title and/or don’t make it to a BCS bowl.

Richt talked earlier this week about the “fine line" between winning and losing in the SEC.

There’s also a fine line between being a coach who has established his program as a consistent winner and a coach who can’t get his program over the proverbial hump.

Richt, in his 12th season at Georgia, is closing in on his eighth season of 10 or more wins. He’s 18-3 since starting the season 0-2 a year ago, and he just beat bitter rival Florida for the second year in a row -- the first time that has happened since the Bulldogs won three in a row from 1987-89.

In fact, if Georgia can beat Auburn this weekend, Richt would be 10-2 against the Bulldogs’ four biggest rivals -- Auburn, Florida, Georgia Tech and Tennessee -- over the past 12 games.

But here’s the rub: Since the 2008 season, Richt is 2-14 against teams that finished the season nationally ranked. That includes an 0-10 mark against SEC teams that finished the season in the Top 25 of the Associated Press poll.

And against teams nationally ranked at the time of the game, Richt isn’t much better. He has lost 11 of his past 15 games to ranked foes dating back to the start of the 2009 season.

The schedule also has been kind to Georgia each of the past two years. The Bulldogs have avoided both Alabama and LSU, which is constantly pointed out by Richt’s skeptics.

Probably the thing that has been most maddening for the Georgia fans this season is the inconsistency of the team.

The Bulldogs, who could have as many as four players selected in the top three rounds of the NFL draft in April, rolled over and played dead in an ugly 35-7 loss to South Carolina. The defense looked equally bad in a lackluster 29-24 victory over Kentucky, but then bounced back and looked like one of the top defenses in the country a week later in a 17-9 win over Florida.

And then last week, Georgia scored 37 unanswered points to hammer Ole Miss 37-10.

It could be that the Bulldogs are hitting their stride at just the right time, particularly after having to play so many different defensive combinations early because of all of the suspensions. Then again, maybe they’re just perpetually inconsistent.

Whatever the case, here they are … again.

Most people picked the Bulldogs to win the East back in the preseason, and Richt has them positioned to do just that.

Of course, all winning Saturday over Auburn does is start the real season for Georgia.

Richt is well aware of the stakes and would be the first to say that this team still has a lot left out there on the table.

“Have we reached our full potential as a team yet? I don’t know,” Richt said. “I think, at times, we’ve seen the best of what we can do offensively and defensively and maybe even in the kicking game. But have we done it all on the same day? Not very often, and that’s still a goal for us, to try to get to a point where everybody can play their best week in and week out.”

It’s almost to a point where Richt’s longevity probably works against him. He already has beaten the odds. Coaches in this league don’t make it at one place for 12 years, not anymore.

Their words get old. Their act tends to wear thin, and fans convince themselves that new blood is needed.

It’s the SEC way.

But if nothing else, Richt has proved that he’s a survivor, and his teams have been equally resilient each of the past two seasons.

We’ll see if the 2012 Dawgs still have their best football ahead of them.

If so, it could be a special season.

If not, they’ll be asking how many more seasons Richt has left.

Yep, a fine line indeed.