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Mark Richt and Georgia seek signature win at Alabama’s expense

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Saturday is full of important college football games that are sure to shake up the rankings. Squarely in the mix of those games is the visit of Number 3 Mississippi to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to take on Number 25 Florida. It has been some time since the Gators had such an important game.

The game drawing the largest national interest is Mark Richt’s Number 8 Georgia Bulldogs hosting Number 13 Alabama. The game is huge for both teams.

Alabama, with one loss already, must win to keep its SEC and national title hopes alive. Georgia must win if for no other reason than to show it can win on the big stage; especially if that stage is on its campus.

A win over Alabama means Georgia has its destiny squarely in its own hands. Over the past 15 years Richt’s teams have had games like this, but could not get the victory that would put them on a path to a national championship.

The most recent near-miss was the classic SEC Championship Game of 2012 where the Bulldogs came up five yards short of beating Alabama, who went on to win the national championship. A win over Alabama on Saturday puts the SEC East bullseye squarely on the backs of Richt and his talented team.

It does not seem like Richt has been in Athens for 15 years. It was 2001 when he left his role as Florida State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach to become a head coach for the first time.

He left the FSU offense in sound shape. During his final season of 2000, they ranked first in the nation in total offense and third in scoring offense under his leadership. Those totals were unmatched until the 2013 championship team.

As a former college quarterback (he backed up Jim Kelly at Miami), Richt helped develop two Heisman Trophy winners in Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke.  It is no wonder Georgia Athletic Director Vince Dooley came calling.

With a 140-48 overall record over 15 seasons, Richt has won 75 percent of his games at Georgia. His teams have won six Eastern Division titles and two SEC championships.

None of that will be discussed on Saturday. That is the purpose of pre-game hype.

A win over Alabama leaves Georgia in the position of needing to beat Tennessee in Knoxville next Saturday and an under-performing Missouri team in Athens on October 17.

That would make the October 31 cocktail party game in Jacksonville against the Gators a potential division-deciding game. For that to be the case, Florida must first get by Mississippi, Missouri and LSU. After the Florida game, Georgia faces eminently winnable conference games with Kentucky and Auburn.

A win on Saturday elevates Georgia to within striking distance of the top four, the cutoff for the national playoffs. Beating Alabama seems to allow a team to make great leaps in the polls, the latest example being Ole Miss earlier this year at the Bulldogs’ expense. At least Georgia knows no one will jump over them if they beat the Crimson Tide.

The Bulldogs enter the game as a 2.5-point favorite, marking the first time Alabama has been an underdog in 72 games. Richt is having none of the favorite or underdog discussion.

“I don’t really have a reaction to that,” he told the media this week. “I think Alabama is a great football team. They are as good or better as they have ever been, in my opinion.”

Saturday’s game marks the Tide’s first visit to Sanford Stadium since 2008, when they defeated then-Number 1 Georgia, 41-30. A possible neutralizing factor is the weather. The forecast calls for wet conditions due to effects from Hurricane Joaquin.

Richt went to Georgia to win championships. He has an offense, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Chubb, that gives the Bulldogs a chance to win the SEC, if not more.

By Saturday night, we will know if he still has that opportunity.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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