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Deep South’s oldest runway

Mark Richt: tryin' to make it work since 2007.
Mark Richt: tryin' to make it work since 2007.

Mark Richt knows what’s wrong with the Georgia Bulldogs.

He knows why the ‘Dogs are 5-4 and in jeopardy of missing a bowl trip for the first time in eight years.

Richt has figured out why his team has fallen off the SEC East radar.

It’s not the schizophrenic offense that was able to torch Arkansas for 52 points but could only scrounge up 19 against Tennessee and 10 at Oklahoma State.

It’s not the erratic defense that allowed 37 to South Carolina, 41 to Arkansas, 41 to Florida and 45 to Tennessee.

Nope. It’s choreography. It’s costumes.

It all goes back to 2007. Desperately needing a spark to help break Florida’s stranglehold on the ‘Dogs (The Gators had won 15 of the last 17), the staid Richt instructed his players to get an excessive celebration penalty after their first score.

The entire team rushed the field, danced like nobody was watching, earned the flag and went on to a 42-30 win.

Two weeks later, Richt and his Georgia team danced again, this time on the sidelines. As the stadium speakers blared “Crank Dat (Superman)” by Souja Boy, the team shook its collective Bulldog butt en route to a 45-20 thrashing of Auburn. Even CBS announcer Verne Lundquist got into the act, captured on camera doing his version of the dance in the booth, a freakishly grotesque rendition that resembled the “Caddyshack” gopher being tasered.

Not only did the Bulldogs boogie, they turned out in black jerseys for the first time ever. The “Blackout” stunt included most Bulldog fans, also wearing black instead of the traditional red.

Georgia finished 11-2 that year, exorcised the Florida demons and made a legitimate case for inclusion in the national championship discussion.

The problem for the Bulldogs was that Tennessee, one of two teams to knock off the Bulldogs, earned the SEC East title and berth in the SEC championship game.

Still, Richt learned from the experience. He learned that one of the most critical components to game preparation was choreography and fashion.

Richt called on the black jerseys for a Sugar Bowl game against Hawaii. The Bulldogs annihilated the Warriors.

Forget the shoes, it’s got to be the shirts.

“I think I’ve learned that it’s about 50-50,” Richt said in 2008 of the importance of energy and scheme. “You better do a good job fundamentally and scheme-wise, but you need to try to find a way to add energy.”

Richt’s method of adding energy? Fashion statements. New clothes. He gave up play-calling duties in 2006 in order to focus more on gauging his team’s emotional level.

“I think it’s part of Mark growing as a coach,” UGA athletic director Damon Evans said of Richt’s new concentration on intangibles. “I think Mark has grown every single year as a coach and gotten better and better. We all learn new things.”

Like acting, for instance, where Richt has shown true range. He’s played everything from a  football coach to a football coach in a variety of projects.

He starred as Mark Richt in Damn Good Dog, a look at the life and times of Georgia mascot UGA in 2004.

He appeared in an episode of the short-lived television series Head Coach, in which he gave a compelling performance as Mark Richt.

Richt played a football coach that may or may not have been himself in the independent film Facing the Giants.

That led to a role in the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blind Side where he was convincing as Georgia football coach Mark Richt.

The range he brings to the camera is as exciting as his fashion audibles. And, likewise, increasingly predictable.

When the Bulldogs faced Alabama in 2008, Richt returned to the well, looking to drink deep from the magic of the black jerseys again.

One Alabama coach famously riffed that they were dressed in black for a funeral. Their own.

And so it was. Alabama buried the Bulldogs, mauling the black jersey mystique.

Later in the season, Florida exacted 49-10 revenge for the dancing of 2007.

Mystified, Richt tried to figure out what went wrong.  Why hadn’t the black jersey strategy worked? He had to be able to figure out how to successfully accessorize in 2009 or, by his own admission, half of his coaching strategy would be for naught.

So for Florida, and for the first time ever, the Bulldogs donned black helmets.

Gators, 41-17.

For Auburn, Richt will likely get his head out of the closet and into the playbook and the gimmick-less results have been enough plenty of times.

His Bulldogs came to Auburn in 2006 with what he termed then as an “awful” game plan and spanked the Tigers out of the Top 10, 37-15.

“I was probably about as low as I have been all season,” Richt said in the aftermath of the ’06 win. “I thought that was the worst thing I had ever seen. I was looking at how I could get (quarterback) Matthew Stafford some confidence and I thought this game plan was awful.”

Let’s hope Auburn’s head coach, Gene Chizik, isn’t focused on fashion choices and choreography.

While still at Iowa State, Chizik responded to a reporter’s question on switching uniforms by saying, “That’s way out of my department.

He wasn’t joking;  Chizik made LSU message boards find their special place earlier this season when he casually mentioned his Tigers would wear their road whites in Baton Rouge, apparently unaware that the Bayou Bengals elect to wear white jerseys at home.

If he’s up on his Auburn history, Chizik will keep the jersey’s blue. Doug Barfield trotted out the orange a few times … Terry Bowden put an orange background behind the numbers …

When it comes to fashion, the only color choice Chizik really needs to be concerned with is yellow.  His Tigers are among the most penalized teams in college football.

Auburn has given opponents 24 first downs via penalty, second-most in the country. More than 10 percent of the first downs surrendered by the Auburn defense have come by way of the yellow hanky.

That’s not news to Georgia. The Bulldogs are even more heavily penalized than the Tigers and are, in fact, the most penalized team in the SEC.

It is a battle to watch for certain, because penalties have played a significant part in two of Auburn’s three losses.

The Bulldogs are currently riding a three-game wining streak over the Tigers. Georgia hasn’t won four in a row in this, the oldest rivalry in the Deep South, since 1948 (part of an eight-game run that ended in 1953).

Both teams have questions that seem to have no answers. Both have displayed astonishing deficiencies on defense in particular. Both have exhibited offensive meltdowns.

Turnovers will be critical.

Auburn‘s wins over West Virginia and Ole Miss (the primary difference between the disaster of 2008 and the encouragement of 2009) were both fueled by turnovers.  If the defense doesn’t force changes of possession in those games both could have ended differently. Turnovers contributed heavily to shocking point totals registered against the Tigers by dinky Ball State and tiny Furman.

Turnovers also helped bury the Tigers against the Hogs of Arkansas.

Despite their respective records, the Tigers and Bulldogs are really fairly evenly matched.

Both have offenses that can catch fire and set off an explosion of points. Both teams have defenses that have been abused at times by the opposition.

Auburn’s defense, a squad which surrendered 30 to Ball State, 30 to West Virginia, 44 to Arkansas, 30 to Furman and 24 to Mississippi State, will have problems containing the Georgia offense.

When in doubt, it is always prudent to look to the team with the better defense but given the performances by both Auburn and Georgia in 2009, that is a difficult call.

That leaves the intangibles.

On Saturday, Richt might just be battling for his job. The Tigers are merely jostling for exceeded expectations and a better bowl berth.

In another time and place, Richt’s Bulldogs shot down Auburn in Auburn. That 2003 beating spurred a clandestine plane trip intended to depose then Tiger head coach Tommy Tuberville. The coup backfired, Tuberville survived and a year later embarked on the best season in the history of Auburn football.

Six years later, an Auburn win in Athens could spur similar stirrings in the Bulldog administration and put Richt’s long Athens tenure at risk.

Forget the stats, forget the trends, forget the dancing, the jerseys and … whatever Richt might be planning on unveiling tomorrow. Maybe stormtrooper helmets?

This is a game the Bulldogs need to win. It’s a game the Tigers want to win. In a showdown of unpredictable and mercurial teams, need often trumps want.

Of course, football isn’t a contest of who looks fiercest, but who plays it.

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