ATHENS – There is an endless debate about whether the Georgia football program is accomplishing everything it can or should, given its stature and resources. But it really doesn’t matter what side of the can-Mark-Richt-win-a-championship debate you’re on. In sports, perception is reality – until reality proves perception wrong.

John Elway could never win a Super Bowl — until he did at the age of 37.

The Red Sox were thought to be forever cursed for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 — until they won the World Series in 2004.

Beaten-down Atlanta pro sports fans were convinced they never would be able to celebrate anything — until the Braves gave the city a title. (Think hard. It happened.)

There’s that sense of Schleprock that seems to surround Richt. He has done great things at Georgia but often has fallen short. So the expected perception is that he will forever fall short, a perception I’m not convinced is entirely accurate. That’s not meant to be taken as a guarantee that Georgia will win another SEC championship and possibly a national title under Richt. I’m just saying I haven’t witnessed enough to suggest he can’t (although last year’s Florida game made me wonder.)

The next game has the potential to change the view.

Georgia faces Alabama Saturday at Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs are a 2½-point favorite according to people who never step on a football field or cut a check to a booster club. But it will take a win to begin to erase doubts about what this Georgia team can do this season.

“It’s an opportunity to establish ourselves as a good team,” Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell said.

The senior went on to say he actually considers the Dogs a “great team,” but understands the power of perception.

“The way the college football system works, you’re only as good as the opponents you beat,” he said. “However they’re perceived is how you’ll be perceived. Alabama is perceived as being a powerhouse. So if you beat a powerhouse, who do you become? And that’s the opportunity. That’s what I’m speaking about.”

It’s an opportunity for Richt to show again that he can beat Nick Saban at Alabama (notwithstanding that he did just that in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Saban’s first season). It’s an opportunity for defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and his players to show this defense is as good as we think it is, because Georgia hired the former Alabama and Florida State assistant for games like this.

It’s also an opportunity for Greyson Lambert. He is 4-0 as Georgia’s starting quarterback and for the last two games has tempted perfection: 33-for-35 passing (one incompletion was a throwaway in the end zone), 476 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, one sack. But his four starts have come against Louisiana-Monroe, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Southern, none of whom are a measuring stick on the level of Alabama.

If and until Georgia wins Saturday, there will be questions about whether Lambert can handle the pressure and disguised coverages the Crimson Tide will throw at him and whether he can make a play to win a big game. Richt didn’t take any chances on Lambert being overwhelmed this week, keeping him off limits to the media.

Richt justified his decision by pointing out Lambert’s performance against South Carolina, when he set an NCAA record for completion percentage after week of not giving interviews.

“Remember that game where he didn’t talk to anybody?” Richt told the AJC’s Chip Towers. “He, like, did something no one else had done in the history of the world. Well, we’re going to keep going with that.”

Whatever works. Richt is 0-2 against Alabama since that win in 2007 (which didn’t look nearly as good after the Tide lost later that season to Louisiana-Monroe). There was 2008, when the No. 3 ranked Bulldogs were smoked 31-0 in the first half in Sanford Stadium on the way to a 41-30 defeat. There was 2012, when Georgia led the SEC title game 21-10 in the third quarter and 28-25 with less than five minutes left but lost 32-28 (time running out with the Dogs’ offense on the Alabama five-yard line).

Richt knows close but losing won’t get it done and doesn’t change perceptions. And so does everybody else.

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