ATLANTA -- It seemed to be a role reversal on stage Friday: Nick Saban, the famously stern Alabama head coach, smiling for the cameras during a photo session; Mark Richt, the laid-back Georgia head coach, with a stern expression, hands folded across his body.
There appeared to be a seriousness to the moment for Richt, as Saturdays SEC championship game could be program-defining.
A win means a trip to the BCS championship for the first time under Richt, who already has won two SEC titles but continues to face the criticism that he cant win the big one.
A loss means not only a return to such criticism, but a possible free-fall in the bowl picture and the continuation of the theme that Georgia only succeeded this year because of its schedule.
We have more at stake this year, Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera, comparing it to last years SEC championship appearance. Its all or nothing.
Last year, Georgia entered this game just aiming to play spoiler against LSU. A national title wasnt in the offing. This year is entirely different.
Its a chance for Richt to take the program to a place it hasnt been in 29 years, the last time it played a bowl with a chance to be the national champion in the 1983 Cotton Bowl. But its also a chance for the veteran Bulldogs -- from quarterback Aaron Murray to a senior-laden defense -- to complete a turnaround after the 6-7 season in 2010.
Were still not getting the respect that we feel we deserve, Georgia sophomore cornerback Damian Swann said. But being around the guys that have been here, that have played a lot of football here, theyre still fed up with it. And now theyre in the best situation they can, to prove they can do it before they leave.
When Richt took the podium to meet national and regional media, he returned to many of the same themes that got Georgia to this point, within a game of the national championship: not panicking after the loss to South Carolina, the impact of Shawn Williams calling out his teammates before a win over Florida.
Im thankful that our administration believed in us and gave us an opportunity to make sure that we could get back in it and could continue to fight, Richt said, harkening back to his hot-seat status from 2010 and 2011. There were some things that we felt like we had to change, and we do that, every year. Whether youre winning or losing, youre always evaluating what you do on a year-to-year basis and try to decide what is the best course of action in the future.
But most of the principles that we use to get back in it were the ones weve been using all along, and we just didnt lose faith. We didnt panic. We stayed the course, and it worked out for us.
Georgia (11-1) enters this game as a 7.5-point underdog to Alabama, which is also 11-1 and is the defending national champion. The teams actually had comparable schedules, and the Bulldogs enter on a hot run, having won their past four games by an average of 32 points. And that was after the win over then-No. 3 Florida, which turned around Georgias season and is the reason it won the SEC East.
But the memory of Georgias lone loss, a 35-7 shellacking Oct. 6 at South Carolina, still is in the minds of many who expect Alabama to win Saturday. Richt talked Friday again about his reaction to that loss, saying the blame was team-wide and that Williams public airing of grievances a couple of weeks later helped jump-start the team.
Im not going to try to minimize Shawn Willilams comment that went public about questioning the manhood of our team and in particular our defense, calling everybody soft, Richt said. Sometimes those things happen in a closed door meeting, and he blurted it right out in front of the whole world to hear with our media. And you know, when I heard it, I wasnt really that mad. I kind of grinned because I knew something was about to give here. And I think some of the guys got their feelings hurt, and some guys got mad. But I think everybody understood that Shawns heart was he wants us to play better.
And now Georgia finds itself in position to win and go to Miami, achieving a goal that players spoke about before the season. The Bulldogs, who have watched their conference win the past six BCS championships, last won a national title in 1980.
We have to win this game, and we need to give people something else to talk about, senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. Im proud of my Georgia football history. But I came here to win, too.
For us to go take out Alabama, I think it would be a big statement to the world, Swann said. I think wed get more respect in the college football world.
A loss, especially a convincing one, would probably make things go the other way. It is why, as Herrera said, this game is all or nothing for the Georgia Bulldogs.