By Tim Guidera
NEW ORLEANS, LA--When a team goes from where Georgia was on October 7 to where the Bulldogs are tonight, it is almost always the result of quality coaching.
And, after Mark Richt was criticized for his team's inconsistent and uninspired play through the Tennessee game, he deserves all the credit for the remarkable reversal that led to six straight wins in the second half of the season and a third Sugar Bowl appearance in the last six years.
"He deserves a lot of credit,'' says Georgia Athletics Director Damon Evans. "He's done an exceptional job every year he has been the coach at Georgia. He's someone we want to remain at Georgia for a very long time.
"I think he continues to get better every year. He's growing in a job and as long as you continue you continue to get better.
The growth of this young Bulldog team was evident and consistent over the final two months of the season.
Georgia's turnaround has been so complete, so seamless, that it is difficult to pinpoint the biggest moment of it.
Was it the final drive at Vanderbilt that led to a season-saving field goal as time expired?
Was it a pivotal win over Florida and the controversial end-zone celebration that introduced the Bulldogs' new image?
Or maybe the comeback to a convincing win over Auburn under blackout conditions in Athens that completed the program's personality makeover.
Whether it was any single moment or simply avoiding the letdowns that were always possible, it all led up to Richt bringing the Bulldogs farther than it once seemed they could ever get this year in arguably the best coaching job he has done during his already successful seven years at Georgia.
"He told us, guys you have the talent, you have all the tools, you just have to go out and play,'' said UGA flanker Mohamed Massaquoi. "He gave us everything we needed to be successful.''
"He's a head coach, that's his job, to make sure we're ready to play week in and week out, to make sure we're motivated and know we're capable of winning,'' said senior safety Kelin Johnson. "And he's been doing that. He's been finding different ways to do that.
"He's having a lot of fun, he's relaxed. You know, coach is getting a little bit older now, he's starting to see it will depend more on his leadership.''
That leadership was as clear to see as ever this year.
And it led to a season in Athens that exceeded all expectations and almost any imagination.