SEC Championship Game: This Is Georgia Coach Mark Richt's Chance to Shine

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterNovember 30, 2012

This time two years ago, the Georgia Bulldogs were at .500 and limping into the Liberty Bowl—a game which they would lose 10-6 to UCF.

Head coach Mark Richt was subsequently placed on the hottest seat in America, and Georgia's 0-2 start to the 2011 season certainly didn't help matters.

My, how things have changed. 

Since that point, the Bulldogs have posted a 22-3 record, won two consecutive SEC East titles and will enter the Georgia Dome on Saturday afternoon with a shot at clinching a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.

Richt gets overlooked in SEC coaching circles due to Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles, but Saturday night is a chance for Richt to solidify his career as one of the elite SEC coaches of this era.

Just look at what he's been able to accomplish during his career. He took over a mediocre program in 2001, and won the SEC title just one year later. Since 2002, the Bulldogs have finished in the Top Five on five separate occasions.

But it's more than that. Richt has successfully led Georgia through two downturns—one in 2006 and one from 2009-10—and back to national relevance.

In this day and age of "win now or be gone" coaching, that's a testament to the dedication of Richt and the patience of the leadership of Georgia's athletic department.

Former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley commented on Richt's dedication to USA Today:

You're going to go through a series of crises as a coach and you have to be able to survive them. He's been through one. He's led a charmed life up until a couple years ago, but he met the crisis head-on, he's addressed it and now he's brought the team to this position. On the other hand, somewhere down the road he'll go through another crisis. You don't ever solve it permanently, but I'm proud of him.

Despite Richt's 117-39 record at Georgia, the Bulldogs have never been in this position in the BCS era. Sure, they've played for—and won—SEC Championships. But they've never been in control of their national championship destiny this late in the season.

That's a whole different kind of pressure for a head coach and a program.

The SEC Championship Game on Saturday is a career-defining game for Richt, and will define the perception of the program moving forward.

If he's able to lead his team to the upset over Alabama on Saturday afternoon, and play for the national title, it will elevate him to the level where Saban and Miles currently reside.

Lose it, and Richt may never get out of that shadow.