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It's dog days in Athens for Georgia, Richt

ATHENS — Mark Richt's worst season as Georgia's coach may not have hit bottom.

Richt's 6-5 Bulldogs are underdogs for Saturday's game at No. 7 Georgia Tech. Georgia must upset the Yellow Jackets or win its bowl game to avoid the program's first losing season since Jim Donnan's 5-6 debut in 1996.

So little has gone right this season that fans are demanding changes on Richt's staff to ensure the 2009 decline remains the exception to the coach's otherwise impressive resume.

Even Uga VII couldn't survive Georgia's dog days.

The 4-year-old mascot died of heart problems last week. A wreath was placed on Uga VII's empty doghouse, setting a somber sideline backdrop for Georgia's 34-27 loss to Kentucky.

Georgia beat FCS team Tennessee Tech 38-0 but otherwise has allowed more than 29 points per game, including more than 40 to Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida.

Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez drew criticism last year after Georgia gave up more than 40 points in losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech. More defensive breakdowns in 2009 have raised the volume of the complaints.

Richt fielded questions on his weekly radio show on Monday night about the defense's problems under Martinez and the play-calling of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.

"I think our fans love their team," Richt said Tuesday. "I think they want the highest level of success they can get. When they don't get it, they get passionate about it. Some people want to tell you what you did wrong, some people just want to know. But the good news is they love the Dogs. I think without the passion of the fans, Georgia is not Georgia."

Richt hasn't revealed his plans for Martinez or other assistants.          

"Focusing on anything too far down the road is not healthy for me or the team," he said recently.

What about after the season?

"Every offseason you must reevaluate," he said.

Georgia players can't help but wonder if some of their position coaches could be in trouble.

"I know that people outside of this football program talk about it and they certainly want changes," said freshman receiver Rantavious Wooten, who defended the assistants. "They're going to call the right plays and we have to go out and execute them. It has nothing to do with the coaches. It's us as players. We have to do everything right, not the coaches.

"It's just as much our fault as their fault but some people just look at the coaches."

Richt and his assistants were celebrated for ending Georgia's 20-year Southeastern Conference championship drought in 2002 and bringing home another SEC title in 2005.

Among active coaches, only Florida's Urban Meyer, Southern Cal's Pete Carroll and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops have better winning percentages than Richt's .765 mark (88-27).

Georgia has two top-three finishes under Richt but tumbled to a 10-3 finish after a preseason No. 1 ranking last year. Then came this year's losses to Oklahoma State, LSU, Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky.

"I think that all programs go through some cycles," he said. "We've been on a pretty good upswing for quite some time. This year has certainly been a downswing when it comes to the record. It is what it is.

"Will we get it back on track and get back to the winning ways we're used to? I think we will. There's no doubt about it."

Richt appeared immune to downswings as he posted six seasons with 10 or more wins while switching from David Greene to D.J. Shockley to Matthew Stafford at quarterback.

There was an expectation of another smooth transition when Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft, but this time Richt had to replace more than one playmaker. Running back Knowshon Moreno, another first-round pick, and receiver Mohamed Massaquoi also were lost.

Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo expected senior Joe Cox would be a steady, if unspectacular, replacement for Stafford. Instead, Cox has been up and down. He tied the school record with five touchdown passes against Arkansas but he has 14 interceptions with his 21 touchdowns for the season.

Most frustrating for Richt is Georgia's persistent problems with penalties and turnovers. Repeated boos came down from the Sanford Stadium stands as Georgia's four second-half turnovers set up Kentucky's comeback.

Georgia is the SEC's most-penalized team and is next to last in the nation in turnover ratio.

Through it all, Cox said Richt hasn't wavered.

"I think he's stayed the same person," Cox said. "He hasn't changed when we've struggled or changed when we've done well.

"He still preaches the same things that he believes is right and he has been consistent the whole year and that has been good."