Bulldogs miss out on regaining momentum in loss to Gamecocks

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ATHENS, Ga. -- When things go wrong for coaches, they often can look back on a moment, a bounce of the ball, a bad call or an unlucky break where -- had it gone the other way -- things could have turned out so differently.

For Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, it was the 2007 SEC championship game. Had the Volunteers beaten LSU that day in Atlanta, and they were certainly in a position to do so until a couple of late mistakes, Fulmer still might be coaching at Tennessee today. But from that point forward the program he built -- that won the national championship in 1998 -- began to slip in the minds of many fans who said they were simply tired and ready for change. At the end of 2008 he was forced out after 30 years as a player, assistant coach and head coach at the school he loved.

For Georgia's Mark Richt that moment may have come in the third quarter of Saturday's 45-42 loss to No. 12 South Carolina at Sanford Stadium.

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First, understand the mood of the Georgia fans when this game began. After a 6-7 season in 2010 followed by a 35-21 thumping by No. 4 Boise State last week in Atlanta, the Bulldog Nation entered this game with equal parts of anger and trepidation.

In the days leading up to the game, they flooded the talk shows with the belief that the program had lost its steam under Richt, who is in his 11th year as coach. They pointed to the fact that from 2002 to 2008, when he won two SEC championships and fielded a team that was a preseason No. 1, Richt was 24-11 against teams ranked in the Top 25. After last week's loss, Richt was 2-9 in his previous 11 games against ranked teams.

But with less than three minutes left in the third quarter, Georgia appeared to be in a position to turn the tide of public opinion and wipe out over a year of negativity. The Bulldogs held a 20-14 lead and were taking control against the No. 12 team in the nation and the hated Steve Spurrier.

Suddenly, misfortune, fate, or whatever force Georgia may ascribe stepped in. Freshman running back Isaiah Crowell, who seemingly had written his hero's script by giving Georgia the lead on a 17-yard touchdown catch, bobbled the ball without being touched. It went into the arms of Stephon Gilmore who returned it 56 yards to set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Stephen Garcia.

On Georgia's next possession quarterback Aaron Murray simply did not see linebacker Antonio Allen, who intercepted and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown. In less than two minutes South Carolina led 28-20.

Georgia fought back to tie the score and once more it appeared the stage was set for the Bulldogs to win. But Georgia could not stop the marvelous Marcus Lattimore, who had 96 yards rushing in the fourth quarter. He scored the go-ahead touchdown with 3:28 left and then Georgia's Murray made his second big mistake of the night when he fumbled and Melvin Ingram returned it 5 yards for a touchdown and a 45-35 lead with 3:12 left.

Georgia got a late touchdown and then failed to get the onside kick.

When it was over Georgia had outgained South Carolina (436-395) but it was the Gamecocks who had been more resourceful. Three of their touchdowns had come from Georgia turnovers and a fourth came on a fake punt run of 68 yards, also by Ingram, who is listed at 276 pounds on the South Carolina roster.

"They pretty much outplayed us but we were just fortunate to win," said Spurrier, who is favored to win his second straight SEC East championship. "I don't remember being a part of a game quite like that. They were dominating us early but we held them to some field goals. This was a really good win for us."

Richt could point to all the things that Georgia did well and there were a lot of them. But the final score said that Richt is now 6-9 in his past 15 games as Georgia's head coach.

"I saw an awful lot of fight and I saw a lot of good plays at crunch time," Richt said. "I saw a lot of good things we can build on. But you can't help out the other team as much as we did and expect to win."

The fact is that Georgia got embarrassed last week and showed very little resiliency once Boise State took control. On this night Georgia kept playing and scored 42 points against what is supposed to be a pretty good defense.

"We kept playing and showed that we can be a great football team," said Murray. "We have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball but those four turnovers hurt us."

No team in college football has opened the 2011 season with two tougher games than Georgia. And the rest of Bulldogs' schedule looks manageable. Georgia does not play Alabama, LSU, or Arkansas in the SEC West. And the SEC East still looks wide open.

Richt can remind his players that South Carolina won the division with a 5-3 record last season. He can also tell them that Virginia Tech started 0-2 last season after losing to Boise State and James Madison only to win 11 straight and an ACC championship. It can be done.

"We we look at the film tomorrow we'll probably be throwing things against the wall," Richt said. "But I think you saw out there tonight that this is a team that is going to get better. We just have to stay together. If we don't lose heart we're going to be a heck of a team.

"We have a tight-knit group. Our guys love each other and believe in each other. We will tweak a few things and be in good shape."

All of that could be true. Georgia is more than capable of bouncing back from an 0-2 start. Whether or not the Georgia fan base can do the same is another question. Georgia's last SEC championship came in 2005 and since then four different conference schools (LSU, Florida, Alabama, Auburn) have won national titles.

Momentum in college football is a very fickle thing. Once it is lost by a coach who had been in a place a long time, it is hard to get back. There was a moment Saturday when Richt had a chance to regain his momentum -- to swing the positive energy back to his corner. That moment was lost. It remains to be seen if he will get another chance.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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