MEMPHIS -- The most miserable season in Mark Richt’s decade as Georgia’s head coach was given a fitting finish on the final day of 2010. It only took a few minutes for Richt, whose 11th season may be his most critical, to begin looking ahead.
It was all the Georgia football program has at this point.
It was one thing to be left accepting a bid to a lower-tier bowl like the Liberty, to play Central Florida, a non-BCS program.
It was another thing to then lose the game, and in an ugly, low-scoring display of football, 10-6.
“We’re gonna improve,” Richt said. “We’re gonna get Georgia where it belongs; 2010 is over, and 2011 is upon us, and I think everyone’s looking forward to that.”
There were so many reasons to want to forget this year, including numerous off-field issues. The final day of the year saw the Bulldogs’ record fall to 6-7, their first losing season since 1996.
As the new year begins, Richt and players vowed that there would be changes. That doesn’t necessarily mean personnel, but what one player called a “culture change” around a program that may have grown stale.
“It’s embarrassing to be part of a losing season; it absolutely is,” said place-kicker Blair Walsh, who was responsible for all six of his team’s points. “My three years haven’t been what I wanted them to be, success and the team-wise. And we’ll change that. The culture of our program is changing, and I think the players are changing as well. We’ve got a new regime of seniors in and we’ll go from there.”
Walsh said several times that the Bulldogs, in taking on a team from Conference USA, may have felt “entitled” to win. It didn’t matter that UCF was coached by George O’Leary, the former Georgia Tech head coach, and were ranked 25th in the final BCS standings.
“Our attitude needs to change,” Walsh said. “We’re not entitled to win any games. Even though it was UCF, it was Conference USA, I think we felt like we were entitled to win this game. We can’t feel that way. They’re a great team, they absolutely are. But we need to play better and win. At the end of the day you’re playing football, you’re not playing conference, and which conference is better.”
The Bulldogs had finished the regular season with seven straight games of 30 or more points, including five of more than 40.
In their final game, they only managed six.
“We’re all disappointed,” Richt said. “We didn’t want to finish with a loss; we didn’t want to finish with a losing record. No one would have really predicted that, but it is what it is, as they say.”
Quarterback Aaron Murray, wearing gloves for the first time in a game, had two critical interceptions and struggled overall. Georgia finished with 280 total yards, more than 100 below its season average.
Star receiver A.J. Green (eight catches for 77 yards) was largely a non-factor in the second half.
“They’re a hell of a defense,” Green said. “They had a great game plan for me.”
Georgia actually led for most of the game, including 6-3 at halftime. But UCF scored the game’s first and only touchdown with 9:01 left in the game, on a 10-yard run by Latavious Murray. It was UCF’s Murray, not Georgia’s, who was named the game’s MVP after tallying 104 yards.
Richt’s decision to kick the field goal on Georgia’s opening drive ended up looming large. Georgia had fourth-and-inches at the UCF 3, but he elected for the chip-shot field goal.
Still, Richt said he didn’t regret the decision.
“Well if I’d known what the final score was, yeah. But I think it was the right thing to do at the time,” he said. “I think a couple players were upset that I didn’t go for it at that time. But I was like, ‘If you wanna make it, make it on third-and-1; don’t tell me you wanna go for it on fourth-and-1.’ ”
Georgia did have one final gasp, after starting its final drive at its own 20 with 2:20 left. A couple long fourth-down completions, to Green and Kris Durham, gave the Bulldogs hope.
But the Bulldogs were left trying for a desperation pass from the UCF 30 on the game’s final play, and it didn’t come close.
A few minutes later, Walsh was asked where the Bulldogs go from here.
“Up. Up, up,” he said, repeating the word, then adding, “It can’t go down.”