MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Mark Richt, on the day before the Liberty Bowl, did something very uncharacteristic for him. Speaking at a press conference, he stopped in the middle of an answer about his priorities in life and coaching to issue a defense of his record as Georgia’s head coach.
“I think I’m like the fourth-winningest coach in America,” Richt said. “That’s not too bad.”
The specifics of the claim aside -- among coaches with at least five full seasons, Richt is fourth, not counting Urban Meyer, who coached his last game Saturday with Florida -- it was a telling moment. The 2010 season was one in which Richt felt the most heat he has in 10 years as Georgia’s head coach, for reasons on and off the field.
Now, after an unexpected, ugly loss to Central Florida, that heat will increase for the 2011 season.
Richt is 96-34 at Georgia, but the Bulldogs have declined each of the past four years: From 11-2 in 2007, to records of 10-3, 8-5 and now 6-7.
The man who hired him, the legendary Vince Dooley, noted during the season that Richt had enjoyed “a charmed life” as a coach. It’s charmed no more, as Richt figures to enter the 2011 season on the hottest seat in the SEC.
So are changes afoot? Only one came before the bowl: Dave Van Halanger, the strength and conditioning coordinator throughout Richt’s tenure, was replaced in that role by assistant Joe Tereshinski II.
As for the rest of the staff, no other changes seem likely. After turning over most of his defensive staff last year, and with the offense finishing strong in the latter half of the season, Richt doesn’t appear to have any desire for further change.
But the roster is expected to have a major turnover.
Star wide receiver A.J. Green, a junior, is expected to declare for the NFL draft. Linebacker Justin Houston, who led the SEC in sacks, is likely to do the same.
That would take away Georgia’s biggest playmakers on each side of the ball. Its defensive leader, inside linebacker Akeem Dent, is a senior.
The offensive line also could be on tap for a makeover. Junior guard Cordy Glenn is mulling entering the draft. So is junior tackle Trinton Sturdivant, who, if he returns would start at left tackle, protecting quarterback Aaron Murray. The team’s most versatile lineman, Clint Boling, is a senior, as is right tackle Josh Davis.
The other player the Bulldogs are hoping passes on the draft is Brandon Boykin, a starter at cornerback who set the school record for career kickoff return yards. Boykin has said he is waiting to hear what the NFL draft advisory board says.
When the 2010 season began, the major concern facing the team was Murray, a redshirt freshman. As it turned out, Murray had a fantastic debut season before struggling in the Liberty Bowl. Still, barring a return by Green or Houston, Murray figures to be the team’s top returning player, the main reason for any optimism for 2011.
The Bulldogs need recruits who will make an immediate impact, including ones who could start at tailback, nose guard and defensive end.
Among returning players, there is hope besides Murray:
Freshman offensive lineman Kenarious Gates emerged and should start next year at guard or tackle.
Tight end Orson Charles has the skills to be the team’s top receiver, while Tavarres King showed flashes. Each will be a junior in 2011.
Jarvis Jones, a former Carver High standout and a transfer from Southern California, will be eligible and could replace Houston at outside linebacker.
Safety Alec Ogletree grabbed a starting spot late in the year and could be a force next season.
Kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler, assuming they don’t go pro, should return to be possibly the nation’s best kicking tandem.
Walsh mentioned several times after the game that he felt the team had felt a sense of “entitlement” about playing UCF. That statement could apply to a program in general that has become used to winning, that has long exhibited an air of professionalism, rather than the urgency of an underdog team.
In a strange way, finishing with a losing record may help change that.
“We’re going to start a new philosophy here in Georgia and we’ll go from there,” Walsh said.