Mark RichtGoing into the 2011 season, a hot topic on sports talk radio was whether Georgia coach Mark Richt would be fired after the season.

Richt's first - and only - losing season in 2010, seemingly caused a huge over reaction with at least a portion of the Bulldog faithful.

We likely will never know how many of the 10-wins Georgia recorded that year were needed for the coach to retain his position.

But it is beyond doubt that there was a move a-foot for a change in leadership at the time.

Maybe it is a result of back-to-back SEC Championship Game appearances - though both losses - and maybe people took notice of the absolute mess that became of the rush to change in Knoxville.

Whatever the reason, the talk has moved on to other subjects. As a result, Mark Richt and his yearly average of 10-3 move forward into year 13 in Athens. For now, the local talk is about how close the Bulldogs came to playing for a national title in 2012 and speculation about getting on over the hump this year.

Georgia fans have cause to be optimistic going into this final year of the BCS system. When Aaron Murray decided to come back for his senior year, this team became a serious national title contender again.

Also returning are all five of the offensive linemen from last season, along with the talented junior running back duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. In fact, eight of 11 starters return from an offense that ranked in the top 20 in points scored per game (38) in the nation.

The defense lost some great play-makers from a unit that ranked number 32 in over-all defense. However, the two things that will help the younger defense Georgia fields this year be successful again are still here.

Defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham returns, along with a group of very talented players that have significant playing time. Four starters also return, along with a bevy of new highly-ranked recruits.

Not only will Georgia be good again this season, this could be the best team Richt has fielded since his arrival. That says a lot, considering just how close they came to playing for the BCS title last season.

Georgia fans watched an opportunity for the Bulldogs to play for the national title slip away to Alabama 28-32, in the 2012 SEC Championship Game.

In the game, a story-book fourth quarter rally fell just short inside the 'Bama six-yard-line as time expired. And that wasn’t the only team Richt has coached who came a single play away from competing for a BCS title.

Eleven years ago, an 8-0 Georgia team met a stumbling 5-3 Florida squad in their 2002 game. There, Florida returned an interception for a TD and turned back the potent Georgia attack several times to turn a 20-13 lead into a win.

This would be the Bulldogs only loss in a 13-1 season. A year in which they finished ranked third and watched Ohio State and Miami play for the BCS Championship. Many felt Georgia was a stronger team than either and likely would have beaten either, given the opportunity.

A similarity with the 2002 team is that Georgia opens this year's schedule against Clemson and South Carolina.

In 2002, they won both and built a momentum that held through the first eight games. Manage that again and the likelihood of at least a third straight early December trip to Atlanta will be high.

Get to that point again and who knows? Maybe this will be the year the Bulldogs - and Mark Richt - reach the pinnacle.