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 — it was telling a moment. The 2010 season was one in which Richt felt the most heat he has as Georgia's head coach, for reasons both on and off the field.
Now, after an unexpected, ugly loss to Central Florida, that heat will only 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, pointed out during the season that Richt had always 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 took place 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 should see a major turnover.
Star receiver A.J. Green, a junior, is expected to declare for the NFL draft within the next couple weeks. 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 also a senior.
The offensive line could also be in line for a makeover. Guard Cordy Glenn, a junior, 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 also set the school record for career kickoff return yards. Boykin has said he's waiting to see what the NFL draft advisory board says of his stock.
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.
That's why Georgia coaches were hitting the recruiting trail hard after the end of the regular season, and will hit it again over the coming weeks. The Bulldogs need recruits who will make an immediate impact, including ones who could start at places like tailback, nose guard and defensive end.
Among returning players, there is hope besides just Murray:
- Offensive lineman Kenarious Gates emerged as a freshman and should start next year either at guard or tackle.
- Tight end Orson Charles has the skill-set to be the team's top receiver, while Habersham Central graduate Tavarres King showed flashes. Each will be a junior in 2011.
- Jarvis Jones, 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 year.
- Kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler, assuming they don't go pro, 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 gonna start a new philosophy here in Georgia and we'll go from there," Walsh said.