It's like deja vu all over again. No, really. We've seen a similar scene play out in the SEC before.
A once-beloved, successful coach somehow loses his way, begins to falter, and suddenly loses his job at one of the SEC's top powerhouse programs.
Mark Richt finds himself squarely in the middle of the same scenario that Tennessee coaching legend Phillip Fulmer fell victim to in 2008.
While their successes are somewhat similar, the demise of each is downright uncanny.
Fulmer coached the Vols for 17 years, while Richt just entered his 11th year at Georgia. Fulmer has 56 more wins, and 18 more losses than Richt. Richt won two SEC titles--the same as Fulmer. But Fulmer has a National Championship ring--something that has eluded Richt during his time in Athens.
It was just three seasons removed from that national title winning season when things began to decline for Fulmer at Tennessee.
The Vols began losing big games beginning with the 2001 SEC Championship Game. A win for Tennessee would have sent the Vols to play Miami for all the marbles in the Rose Bowl. LSU pulled off a monumental upset that sent the Vols to the Citrus Bowl to play Michigan.
With the majority of its roster returning, the following season was supposed to be special for the Vols. Instead, the 2002 Vols season got off to a rough start, losing at home to Florida in the third game of the season before finishing the year 8-5 with a humiliating loss to Maryland in the Peach Bowl.
After the '04 campaign featured an SEC East title, 2005 was another much-hyped season in Knoxville. The Vols were picked by many to play for a national title. Off-the-field, however, those Vols were as dysfunctional a group as there ever has been at Tennessee.
That tremendously talented team ended up 5-6 with losses to their three biggest rivals Florida, Georgia, and Alabama in the same season for the first time since the '02 debacle and just the second time since Florida and Georgia became annual opponents for the Vols in '92.
Under outside pressure, Fulmer fired offensive coordinator Randy Sanders in October of that season. The return of David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator paid off big time for Tennessee as the Vols went 19-8 in '06 and '07. The Vols still lost big games to Florida, LSU, Alabama, and California over those two seasons.
After Cutcliffe left for Duke following the Vols '07 SEC East division winning season, however, things hit rock bottom quickly. The Vols lost their '08 opener to a bad UCLA team before losing in humiliating fashion to Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, among others. Fulmer was fired following the three touchdown loss to the Gamecocks.
Mark Richt's decline began during that same season. The 'Dawgs had finished '07 with 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl win and was ranked No. 1 in the nation coming into the '08 season. It was supposed to be "the year" for Georgia to end its 27 year national championship drought.
When an upstart 'Bama squad nearly ran the 'Dawgs out of Athens in a 41-30 romping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicated, those championship hopes were all but dashed.
Then Florida, the Bulldogs nemesis for the last two-plus decades, beat Richt's talented crew by 39. Bitter rival Georgia Tech then defeated the 'Dawgs on the final game of the season to send Bulldogs faithful into a tizzy over an otherwise successful 10-win season.
The Bulldogs lost five games in '09, two of those in blowout fashion in big games to rivals Florida and Tennessee. Things finally came to a head in 2010 when Georgia lost four of their first five games before finishing with a 6-7 mark following a bowl loss to Central Florida.
Richt began losing big games in 2008, in much the same way Fulmer began losing them in 2002. Continued blowout losses to rivals will always land SEC coaches on the hotseat.
After taking the 'Dawgs to the SEC Championship Game in three of his first five seasons, Richt hasn't been back to the Dome in early December since 2005.
In Richt's last 15 games versus ranked opponents, the 'Dawgs are 4-11. With the beginning of Fulmer's decline from 2002-05, the Vols were 5-11 versus ranked opponents.
In Fulmer's final 15 games versus ranked opponents ('06-08), the Vols were 5-10.
Following Georgia's dreadful defensive decline in the 2009 season, Richt fired defensive coordinator Willie Martinez in much the same fashion that Fulmer fired Sanders following a dreadful '05 offensive campaign.
The success the Vols regained under Cutcliffe for two seasons is the only thing that lengthened Fulmer's time at UT. Richt hasn't been so lucky. Just 14 games into Todd Grantham's tenure as defensive coordinator, Georgia is 6-8.
The most damaging stat, however, is Richt's 7-9 mark versus SEC teams in the last two seasons ('09-10). That mark is two games worse than Fulmer's final two seasons at Tennessee.
2011 and Beyond
The fact is, Georgia is still one of the most undisciplined teams on and off the field in the entire country. The team has led the SEC in penalty yardage two of the last three seasons and has lost multiple key players to stupid off-the-field decisions, much like Fulmer's final few teams.
Richt has reached the most important point of of his Georgia career just one game into the 2011 season.
Had Georgia looked any better against Boise State last weekend, all of this hotseat talk would have likely been delayed. But the 'Dawgs basically lost a home game by two touchdowns to a non-BCS-conference opponent.
An SEC team that many have picked to win its division this season simply cannot look that inept versus a team from a non-BCS conference--even if that non-BCS team is No. 5 Boise State.
But the hotseat talk isn't about one loss to open a season. It's about a continual downward trend for a head coach once thought of as a rising star in the SEC.
If Georgia doesn't rebound versus South Carolina this weekend (and the 'Dawgs have given us no reason to believe that it will), things in Athens will get ugly fast.