ATHENS — When Mark Richt's coaching future looked bleakest, he relied on his religious faith to carry him through.
Meanwhile, his Georgia players took care of business on the field.
The No. 14 Bulldogs have won seven in a row, their longest streak within a season since 2002. The surge has carried Georgia to the brink of the Southeastern Conference championship game and calmed all the talk between the hedges — at least for now — about an imminent coaching change.
"We've had dreams and aspirations ever since January to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game," said quarterback Aaron Murray, who is closing in on the school record for touchdown passes in a season. "Right now, we have that opportunity. We're definitely stoked about that."
Georgia (7-2, 5-1 SEC) can clinch its first division title in six years with wins Saturday over No. 24 Auburn and the following week against Kentucky — quite a comeback from the first losing record of Richt's 11-year coaching tenure and an 0-2 start to this season.
When the Bulldogs seemed headed for more disappointment, the heat on Richt nearly boiled over. Everywhere his players went, they heard talk that a coaching change was coming, that their leader was out of touch and could no longer compete with the SEC's other powerhouse programs.
They turned the criticism into a rallying cry.
"We always want to play for coach Richt," tight end Aron White said. "This past year, the way everybody was so hard on him in the offseason, and especially after we started off 0-2. Nobody wanted to be that team that ended the Mark Richt era. That was not the legacy we wanted to leave at all. We're definitely playing our hearts out for him this season, and he's coaching his heart out for us."
Richt insists he never let the pressure get to him. While he's never been shy about his discussing his Christian faith, he went a step further at his regular weekly news conference, actually reciting a Bible verse that helped him cope with his detractors.
"I love the game of football. I love my job. I love Georgia. But what I do is not who I am," Richt said. "I think sometimes if we become what we do, and then things aren't going just right, then all of a sudden our entire world falls apart. I've got a faith in my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, and I know that God loves me and is going to take care of me. I just truly believe that. When all the games are done and all the life is lived, I know where I'll be for eternity."
He said a passage in Colossians was especially helpful.
"Not to say I don't care about what happens in this world, because that's not true," Richt said. "Colossians 3:23 says, 'Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as unto the Lord,' so that's what I was doing on a daily basis. I was doing my job as best I could and trying to do it for his glory and trying not to worry about anything else. That's kind of how I navigated that time and there will be more tough times, I'm sure. That's the way life is."
Of course, defending national champion Auburn (6-3, 4-2) would love nothing more than to ruin things for its opponent in the Deep South's oldest rivalry.
The Tigers are out of the running for another title, but they still have a shot at turning this into a pretty successful rebuilding year in the post-Cam Newton era.
"We're going into a tough SEC environment. The atmosphere's going to be electric," coach Gene Chizik said. "For them, a lot's at stake. For us, every week a lot's at stake. We're expected to win every week, no matter who we're playing or where we're playing."
There figures to be some lingering bitterness from last year's game, which featured plenty of chippy plays and a couple of injury causing hits that knocked Murray out of the game. In all, 10 personal fouls were called, and two Auburn players wound up with suspensions after throwing punches.
"Unfortunately some things happened last year that I wish didn't," Chizik said. "We're always trying to do things the right way. I don't expect there to be any issues at all."
Murray insists that he's moved on.
"Obviously, there were some big hits," he said, managing a chuckle. "But you're going to get that in an SEC game. I play a position where people want to take my head off. I understand that. You've just got to suck it up, take the hits, get back up and continue playing."
With star receiver A.J. Green now playing in the pros, Georgia has relied on a much more diversified offense. Murray has connected with nine receivers on 23 touchdown passes, leaving him just two shy of the school record held by Matthew Stafford, who went on to be the top pick in the NFL draft.
The Georgia offense will be bolstered by the return of freshman running back Isaiah Crowell, who was suspended from last week's rout of New Mexico State after reportedly failing a drug test. He apologized for his mistake and vowed it wouldn't happen again.
With Newton joining Green and Stafford in the NFL, Auburn hasn't been nearly as dynamic on offense. The Tigers rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring, total yards and passing yards. They've also been through a quarterback change, with Clint Moseley taking over for Barrett Trotter.
Other than an upset win over South Carolina, Auburn has struggled on the road. The last trip away from Jordan-Hare Stadium produced a 45-10 loss to No. 1 LSU. The Tigers earlier had a two-touchdown defeat at Clemson and a 38-14 blowout at Arkansas.
"We can't implode like we did on the road the last time we went, and that is self-destruct with turnovers and big plays given up defensively," Chizik said.
While Georgia is riding high at the moment, a loss to Auburn could quickly spark renewed speculation about Richt's future.
"You go week to week in this business," said former Georgia coach Vince Dooley. "That's the way things are. It will always be that way."