Let's get one thing out of the way right now: There's no magic number. Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity isn't putting a gold star by Mark Richt's name for every game the Dawgs win this season, which means he's not going to count them up at the end of the year and say, "Well, Mark, you only got [X] stars, so I'm gonna have to let you go." (Or, alternatively, "Well, Mark, you got [X] stars, so I'm letting you keep your job, but you can't go out with your friends this weekend. Oh, and you have to mow the lawn on Saturday.")
All that said, though, yes, Mark Richt is on the hottest seat he's been on since he arrived in Athens. A hideous bowl loss to a Conference USA team and Georgia's first losing season in a decade and a half will do that to a guy no matter how nice he is. But if the threshold for his job security can't be found in a hard over/under number, where is it?
My guess is the answer lies less in quantity of wins than in quality. To illustrate this, picture in your mind a 7-5 regular season. By Georgia's standards, that ain't great -- certainly few Georgia fans thought so when the Dawgs hit that number in 2009 -- but if four of those wins came against, say, Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Florida, it'd go a long way toward salving the pain. (If you can imagine any Georgia coach getting fired after a season in which the Dawgs notched a win in the Cocktail Party, you're a crueler man than I.)
With that in mind, there are a number of competing theories about what level of quality Richt's guys have to accomplish to earn him another season in Athens. We'll go through them one by one to see how well each one passes the "smell test." With any luck, we might even get a bead on where the bar lies for Mark Richt's continued employment.
Georgia has to win the SEC East championship.
Not that it wouldn't be awesome if the Dawgs did somehow win the division for the first time since 2005, but . . . uh, no. Look, if every coach coming off a 6-6 regular season had his job security hinge on taking his team to the league championship game the very next year, we'd see even more coaches get the heave-ho than we already do. And let's also remember that if an East title was the be-all end-all, Richt could've gotten bounced after 10-win seasons in 2004 and '07. Certainly the division is wide-open enough that Georgia could win it, but it's hard to see that as being mandatory for a team coming off a losing season, and I'm pretty confident that McGarity sees the long game well enough not to pile all the program's eggs into that particular basket.
Georgia has to start 2-0.
You can't swing a dead cat without hitting some sportswriter who's just looked at the Dawgs' season-opening one-two punch of Boise State and South Carolina and who's writing something to the effect of "If the Dawgs start the season 0-2, they're really screwed." More than a few folks apparently have taken this to mean that if Georgia doesn't win both games, Richt is a dead man walking. But let's be real here: Georgia is starting the season off with, according to the AP, the No. 5 and No. 12 teams in the country. Even in the glory days of Richt's tenure, knocking off both of them in consecutive weeks would've been a challenge. There's no shame (and no pink slip) in splitting the two, particularly if the Dawgs give it their all against the top-five Broncos, then get their revenge against the Gamecocks with a win that establishes them as potential favorites in the SEC East race.
Georgia has to notch a winning record against the Big Four (Florida, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Auburn).
Jim Donnan didn't get fired because he went 8-4 (any more, at least, than Richt would for notching the same record). Donnan got fired because the -4 always seemed to be the same folks, and they just happened to be Georgia's biggest rivals, the four teams that for years have comprised the measuring stick for the Bulldogs as a first-tier program. And fortunately for the Dawgs, all of them are vulnerable this year: Florida is at a crossroads with a first-year head coach; Georgia Tech is coming off a season just as lousy as Georgia's, with major questions about whether Paul Johnson's system can work in the long term; Tennessee is still trying to overcome the personnel disasters that Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin left; and Auburn is replacing more talent than any defending national champion has had to in decades. Richt doesn't have to sweep these four in 2011 any more than he has to any other year, but with all of them looking beatable, he'd better at least have a winning record against them. Should the Dawgs only notch seven or eight wins, it might be OK if they at least came against the right people; otherwise, a new coaching search could be imminent.
Georgia has to beat Florida any way they can.
On the one hand, Georgia isn't the kind of program that puts coaches' futures at the mercy of a single game against a single rival, nor should it be. (To be so obsessed with the Gators that we make the sole determinant of Mark Richt's future . . . well, that sounds like the kind of thing Georgia Tech would do, honestly.) But neither should the Dawgs be losing with such regularity to a single rival, either, and we all know that it's way past time for them to restore some equilibrium to this series. Putting first-year head coach (and ex-Dawg) Will Muschamp in his place would go a long way toward demonstrating that that's happening, and let's be honest, with the Gators as vulnerable now as they've been in years, there's no reason (other than the lingering Cocktail Party curse) that the Dawgs shouldn't be able to knock them off in 2011. If the Dawgs go 9-3 this year and one of the losses is to Florida, that won't doom Richt, but if their record is more like 7-5 or 6-6 and McGarity is on the fence about Richt's future, the results of the game in Jacksonville could be what tip him one way or the other.
Georgia has to at least break even in conference play.
Once the Dawgs get past the first two weeks of the season, the rest of the schedule shapes up as pretty favorable, probably the most manageable slate they've enjoyed in years -- no automatic write-off losses (not even Florida, at least on paper), plenty of opportunities for statement victories that could pave a road to the SEC East title. In a way, though, that manageable schedule is equally a blessing and a curse: Put a string of winnable games in front of Richt and people are going to expect him to, you know, win them -- and if he doesn't, he could very well run out of leash by the end of the season. Georgia was under .500 in SEC games last season for the first time in Richt's tenure, and that's got to change this year. The 2011 Dawgs should expect to win games against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Ole Miss this season, and there's no reason they shouldn't be able to pull a fourth (and, preferably, a fifth or sixth) out of the rest of their SEC slate, particularly with Western Division powerhouses Alabama, LSU and Arkansas off the rotation this year. If they can't manage that, plenty of on-the-fence fans may make up their mind that Richt can no longer get it done in the most competitive conference in college football -- and McGarity could very well decide the same.
So there's no hard-and-fast recipe for Richt getting off the hot seat this year. Well, nine, 10 or 11 wins would do it, of course, but below that things get murky. With a steady hand at the AD position and Richt still having banked a fair bit of good will with the fan base, six, seven or eight wins aren't necessarily a death sentence for the head coach, but some of those wins are going to have to come against the right people.
Whatever happens, we can be pretty confident that Greg McGarity will wait until he can take the entire season into account before determining Richt's ultimate fate; considering all the different ways this season could go in terms of wins and losses to individual teams, we as fans would be wise to do the same.