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The Richt regime
Yellow Jackets havent topped Georgia since the Bulldogs hired Richt in 2001
Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs can extend a five-year run of dominance in their intrastate rivalry with a win over No. 16 Georgia Tech today. For Richt, that might be enough to salvage what looked like a lost season only two weeks ago. - photo by Associated Press
    ATHENS — No matter what happens Saturday, Georgia Tech knows it will be playing for a conference championship and a trip to the Orange Bowl next week.
    Even so, the 16th-ranked Yellow Jackets will find it hard to call the season a complete success if they don’t win this one.
    It’s Georgia, the most hated team on the schedule. It’s Georgia, the team that has owned the series for the last five years.
    ‘‘This is the monster we haven’t conquered,’’ said Joe Anoai, a senior defensive tackle for Georgia Tech. ‘‘We’ve played them tight the last couple of years, but you don’t go out there to play them tight. You go out there to get the ’W.’’’
    The Yellow Jackets (9-2) have already locked up a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. They will face the winner of Saturday’s Wake Forest-Maryland game on Dec. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.
    But first things first. Georgia Tech is tired of losing to its state rival, which began a streak of five straight wins after Mark Richt took over as coach in 2001.
    ‘‘A win over Georgia would be big for the morale of our team,’’ Tech running back Tashard Choice said. ‘‘We have the ACC championship next week. A win in this game would help us be in better spirits for the next game. We want to roll into Jacksonville with five wins in a row. That would be big.’’
    Of course, Georgia (7-4) would love nothing better than to make it six in a row, putting a damper on the Yellow Jackets’ big season while making up for its own disappointments.
    At one point, the 2005 Southeastern Conference champions lost four of five games, a stretch that included shocking defeats to traditional weaklings Vanderbilt and Kentucky. That ruined any hopes of a fifth straight 10-win season and Top 10 finish in the rankings, but the Bulldogs salvaged a bit of pride with a 37-15 upset at Auburn two weeks ago.
    If they can knock off Georgia Tech and win a bowl game, this season will be remembered much more fondly that seemed possible just a couple of weeks ago.
    Richt certainly knows the importance of beating Georgia Tech. His predecessor, Jim Donnan, had a solid record (40-19) but was fired after three straight losses to the Yellow Jackets.
    ‘‘It’s just a huge game for Georgia, a huge game for Georgia Tech,’’ Richt said. ‘‘It means an awful lot to everybody in this program and I know that people who are decision-makers as far as who’s the coach and who’s not the coach, I think they like to beat Tech, too.’’
    He hopes there will be some carry-over from the last five years — or the past two, at least.
    Both were galling losses for the Yellow Jackets, who lost 19-13 in 2004 when quarterback Reggie Ball lost track of the downs on a late drive, then were edged 14-7 a year ago when Ball threw an interception at the goal line with just over a minute remaining.
    ‘‘I’m sure psychology plays a part in it,’’ Richt said. ‘‘Coaches and players do believe that every year is a new year and every team is a new team and the chances of winning this year are just as good as any other year. But streaks do happen.’’
    Not surprisingly, the Yellow Jackets shrugged off any suggestion that Georgia’s domination of the series will give the Bulldogs an edge Saturday.
    ‘‘Each year is different,’’ Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said. ‘‘I don’t think it runs through a team’s mind how many times it’s won or how many times it hasn’t won. If it did, you would never be able to break a streak.’’
    Ball certainly has something to prove against the Bulldogs. Who knows how responsible he feels for the last two losses — the senior quarterback declined to speak with the media this week — but he undoubtedly would like to remove a glaring blemish on his career record.
    ‘‘I can’t talk for Reggie,’’ Bulldogs linebacker Danny Verdun Wheeler said, ‘‘but just looking at his past against Georgia, I think this is probably the biggest game of his career. Maybe it will rank with the ACC championship game next week. ... It’s tough to say, ’We beat everybody but Georgia.’’’
    The Bulldogs gave a glimpse of their potential in the dominating win over then-No. 5 Auburn, but they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent most of the season. Some of that is due to breaking in a freshman quarterback, Matthew Stafford, but the defense hasn’t been nearly as stingy as previous years and the special teams took a major hit when All-SEC kicker Brandon Coutu went down with a season-ending injury.
    Stafford will have his hands full against Georgia Tech’s high-pressure defense, which is tough enough for a veteran quarterback to handle.
    ‘‘He has a lot of great tools. It’s just the experience factor for him,’’ Anoai said. ‘‘I don’t think he’s faced too many defenses that stunt and blitz as much as we do. Hopefully we can confuse him early, maybe get a couple of hits on him and rattle him.’’
    Georgia’s defense will be facing a quarterback who completes less than half his passes (Ball is at 47 percent) but has plenty of big weapons at his disposal. Calvin Johnson (57 catches, 886 yards, 13 touchdowns) is probably the best receiver in the country. Choice has rushed for 1,058 yards and nine TDs in his first year as a starter.
    But that win over Auburn sure changed the Bulldogs’ demeanor.
    ‘‘Everybody’s confidence is at a higher level,’’ receiver Kenneth Harris said. ‘‘We showed a lot of determination and showed that we have no quit in us. The old Georgia team is coming back.’’
    Maybe at just the right time for the Bulldogs.