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Mark Richt fired, and Georgia's top target is Alabama DC Kirby Smart

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After 14 seasons in Athens, it's reportedly over for Mark Richt.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In something of a surprise move, longtime Georgia Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt is stepping down, the school announced Sunday. Richt had just finished his 14th season in charge in Athens with a career record of 145-51 after beating Georgia Tech 13-7 Saturday.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is the Bulldogs' top target, SB Nation's Steven Godfrey reports. Smart played defensive back at Georgia from 1995-98, and was on the coaching staff in 1999 (administrative assistant) and 2005 (running backs coach).

In the statement, Georgia said Richt could remain on staff if he wishes, and will coach the bowl game.

Mark has the opportunity to remain on our staff at the University of Georgia, and would be heavily involved with outreach programs for our former football lettermen via the PO Network as well as other University and Athletic Association initiatives. We wish Mark, Katharyn and his family the best as he enters a new chapter of his life.

Richt had been successful as the head coach, winning two SEC titles and six SEC East division titles, but Georgia's debacle losses became an annual thing. But he never won or played for a national championship with Georgia, and was the subject of fan unrest every few years as a result.

A strong start

Richt came to Georgia in 2001 with a pedigree as a potential program changer, having served as Bobby Bowden's quarterbacks coach at Florida State for the entirety of the Seminoles' dominant run in the 1990s, and as FSU's offensive coordinator from 1994 to 2000. And he got the Bulldogs up and running swiftly, leading them to a 13-1 record, Georgia's first SEC title since 1982 and a Sugar Bowl victory.

Georgia won 10 games in five of the next six seasons, too, adding another SEC title in 2005 and another Sugar Bowl victory in 2007. By the end of that 2007 season, Richt had the most 10-win campaigns by a coach in school history.

Georgia's gradual decline

But Richt's teams burnished Georgia's reputation for underperforming its hype, one that seemed especially valid in 2008, as the Bulldogs went from preseason No. 1 (with Heisman Trophy candidates Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno in their backfield) to eventual Capital One Bowl winners.

Georgia's best seasons since Richt's second SEC title have largely coincided with better ones by SEC East rival Florida and perennial power Alabama, who have combined to win six national championships since 2006. And Georgia's inability to capitalize on Florida's backslide under Will Muschamp and Tennessee's perpetual rebuilding to dominate the SEC East rankled Dawgs fans, too.

Missouri has won the SEC East as often as Georgia has this decade, and exasperating losses -- to Vanderbilt in 2013, Florida in 2014 and Tennessee in 2015 -- have kept the Dawgs from competing for division titles since they came up just short in an epic 2012 SEC Championship Game loss to eventual national champion Alabama.

The relationship between Richt and the people around the university, rumored to be strained, appears to have gone past the point of no return. That's probably due in large part to Georgia underperforming again: The Dawgs were touted to win a weak SEC East this year, but were all but eliminated by late October, with another blowout loss to an offensively challenged Florida team on Halloween extinguishing all hope.

We talked ourselves into Georgia firing Richt in November, and SB Nation's Georgia blog, Dawg Sports, did not take that loss to Florida well. At all.

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Now what?

The question now turns to who will take over as head coach. The first person to spring to mind is Smart, but he's stayed in Tuscaloosa despite interest from schools for about half a decade at this point, and has been close enough to Nick Saban for long enough that he might be angling to succeed his legendary mentor at Alabama.

Another name that makes sense for the Bulldogs is Mike Bobo, but the former Bulldog offensive coordinator left Athens just one year ago to take the Colorado State job. Bobo might be interested in occupying the chair left behind by his former boss, but it's hard to see him leaving Fort Collins to return to the SEC yet, especially given his enormous $5 million buyout and Georgia fans' occasionally vociferous antipathy for his playcalling.

Beyond those coaches, it's hard to see any obvious candidates for the job, despite its reputation as one of the better ones in all of college football. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher could conceivably be interested in making a jump to the SEC. Muschamp, another former Georgia player, would have been a better candidate had his tenure at Florida not been so pilloried, or had he resuscitated Auburn's defense to a greater degree than he has in 2015.

Athletic director Greg McGarity, who reportedly wanted to part ways with Richt after 2014, hasn't made a hire this important yet, so it's hard to get a read on his inclinations. And given that his previous gig was as a Jeremy Foley lieutenant at Florida -- and that Florida's former coaches are all seemingly bad fits for various reasons -- there are few logical threads to pull.

Whatever coach does succeed Richt will inherit a program set to win now and later, if he can keep a current top-five recruiting class from dispersing. Heisman candidate Nick Chubb will return from injury in 2016, and Georgia commit Jacob Eason may be the program's most talented quarterback since Stafford.

Richt's departure, meanwhile, doesn't mean that he's done with collegiate coaching. If he merely wants a change of scenery, he could be a strong fit at Miami, where he was a quarterback in the 1980s. If he wants to sit back and cherry pick a potential job down the road, there will assuredly be suitors for a coach with two SEC titles on his resume.

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