Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thoughts After a Crushing Loss

Thoughts After a Crushing Loss
It is an old football truism that you’re never as good as you think you are after a win, and never as bad as you fear you are after a loss. It’s certainly true that we aren’t as good as the 52-20 South Carolina win made us seem. The next month will tell us if yesterday’s 38-10 throttling at the hands of Nick Saban’s elephants was an accurate reflection of our quality.

As usual, the Fire Mark Richt drums will start thudding today. Perhaps even more annoyingly, the Keep Mark Richt counter-narrartive will ramp up at the same time. I myself have called for the dismissal of our Head Man in Charge (particularly after last year’s colossal parade of fuckups against Tech), and also insisted that he be kept at all costs (particularly during last winter’s swirling rumors about the total collapse of Georgia’s coaching staff). So here’s a look at the facts which Georgia currently faces, and some thoughts. Expect neither a definitive conclusion nor any real football analysis, which is as it should be.

During Richt’s tenure, Georgia has won the SEC twice. The first time was during his second year as HC, 2002, when a faceplant during the regular season against Florida kept UGA from playing for a national championship. Georgia lost in the SEC title game the next year, and after a hiatus in 2004 returned to surprise everyone by destroying LSU 34-14. In the decade since, Georgia has been to the SEC Championship Game twice. In 2011, #12 ranked Georgia got rolled by LSU 42-10 after an impressively close first half showing. In 2012, with a trip to the national title on the line, Georgia lost to Alabama in maybe the most heartbreaking game I’ve ever seen, 32-28. The details of that game are too painful to recount.

Rightly or wrongly, Mark Richt and Georgia have earned a reputation for being unable to win in big games over the last decade. Apart from the two SEC Championship losses, Georgia has blown the following big-stage contests:

--A 2006 drubbing in Sanford by Tennessee

--A 2007 drubbing in Neyland by Tennessee. This, coupled with a loss to Spurrier’s South Carolina team, cost Georgia a shot at a national title in spite of the fact that they ended 2007 as clearly the best team in the country. The ’07 Bulldogs were the last Georgia team to beat Alabama.

--Off the strength of the end of 2007, Georgia began 2008 ranked #1 in the country. The team would suffer a humiliating loss in Sanford at the hands of Alabama and end up 8-4 with a loss to Tech.

--A 2009 season-opening loss to Oklahoma State.

--A 2010 season that included a brutal loss to Colorado (COLORADO!!!) and a 6-7 finish with a loss to Central Florida in the bowl game.

--The 2011 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game against Boise State. Georgia lost 35-21, although the game was nowhere near as close as that score looks. No SEC team should lose to Boise State. Ever.

--The 2012 Capital One Bowl, where Georgia blew a big lead and lost 33-30 in triple-overtime.

--The 2013 season opener against Clemson, which squandered a terrific offensive performance when the defense gave up 38 points.   

--The 2014 Capital One Bowl, where a sluggish, slow-looking Georgia team lost to Nebraska after a thoroughly mediocre performance.

--Brutal losses last season to a terrible South Carolina and Florida team. The South Carolina game featured some of the most baffling playcalling in memory, and Georgia allowed themselves to be dominated by a horrid Florida team in a 38-20 blowout. The season was capped with a loss to Tech that was a showcase in how NOT to coach a football game.

--Yesterday’s Alabama debacle.

To be fair, in that same span, Georgia has had the following highlights:

--A thrilling 42-30 win over Urban Meyer’s defending national champion Florida squad in 2007.

--Single-handedly ruining Colt Brannen’s draft stock in the 2008 Sugar Bowl against Hawaii.

--A three-year winning streak over Florida from 2011-2013.

--The most electric football game I’ve ever seen, Georgia’s 44-41 defeat of LSU in 2013.

--Last year’s 45-21 dismantling of Clemson, and 34-7 victory over Auburn.

The Dawgs had such a dominant win over Clemson last year, in fact, that expectations shot sky high and Georgia became a pick to win the SEC and make the inaugural college playoff. This was followed almost immediately by choking at South Carolina. In fact, since Georgia’s last SEC Championship appearance, the team has had the following disappointments:

2013: 8-4, with losses to Clemson, Missouri (??), Vanderbilt (?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??! This was, of course, mostly the fault of insane officiating), and Auburn.

2014: 9-3, with the aforementioned losses to terrible SC and UF teams, and a humiliating season-ending loss to Georgia Tech.

There’s still a lot of 2015 left, of course. Yesterday’s loss to Alabama doesn’t torpedo UGA’s chances to make the SEC Championship, nor does it mean that Georgia’s chances of making the playoff are over. Now, though, our backs are against the wall. Georgia has to win out, including tough games next week against Tennessee and at the end of the month against Florida. But national perception of Georgia won’t change. Mark Richt remains a coach who can’t win a big game. Georgia fans complain a lot about the lack of respect that the team gets from the national media, but you have to EARN respect. Over the last decade, this team has consistently failed to do so. If Georgia fails to win the east for a third consecutive year in spite of a host of talent, difficult questions must be asked.

Of course, you could say it’s possible that Georgia is a team with a 10-2 ceiling whose fans believe it should be a national champion. To counter that, though, look at the talent this team has had since 2005: Geno Atkins, Clint Boling, Brandon Boykin, Marlon Brown, Sanders Commings, Chris Conley, Akeem Dent, Justin Houston, AJ Green, Matt Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, John Jenkins, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo, Damarcus Dobbs, Dannell Ellerbe, Jarvis Jones, Todd Gurley, and Aaron Murray, who set a host of SEC records in his time at Georgia. Also look at the talent on this team: Nick Chubb, who is a legitimate Heisman contender, Sony Michel, Malcolm Mitchell, Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, and Lorenzo Carter all have potential as NFL players. Why has a team that sends so many players to the league and had so many dynamic athletes failed to win, or at least compete for, a championship? Georgia is considered an also-ran right now. Too many more years of this and that culture will permeate every aspect of the football program.

Of course, the idea that any season that doesn’t end in a championship is a failure is a toxic notion to the way sports are best enjoyed. Most of the time, your team isn’t going to win. Moreover, it’s hard as hell to win the SEC. We might also consider Oregon, who have fielded some stellar teams but failed to win a title over the past decade as well. BUT they’ve won the PAC-12. Georgia is a team that certainly COULD, but I am beginning to doubt if it ever WILL win the SEC again. Mark Richt is a good man, and I believe that he is exactly the kind of coach that a lot of players want to play for. I believe parents trust him to take good care of their sons when they send them off to Georgia. And I know he does a good job of taking care of his players after they leave the University. These things make him a good recruiter. But over the past decade, his effectiveness at realizing the full potential of Georgia’s talent has waned. Has Richt’s window closed? If the answer to that question is yes, then the recruiting prospects are going to dry up. If we can’t win with elite level talent, what’s it going to look like when we’re only fielding three-star recruits?

On the other hand, there are lots of good reasons to stay with Richt. They are as follows:

--Continuity at coach is key to building a stable program. The last two recruiting classes have been the best in the school’s history. Losing Richt would cause those recruits to bolt.

--Who else is out there? Florida, a program that has won two national titles in the last decade and is a perennial contender, had to settle for Jim McElwain at HC after canning Muschamp last fall. Is there some coordinator or HC at another program that we could lure away who would be better? Would we promote Pruitt or Schottenheimer? I don’t see a good prospect for his replacement anywhere.

--A coach isn’t a magic bullet. Replacing a coach won’t fix all the problems. Worse, you run the risk of doing to yourself what Tennessee did. After forcing long-tenured coach Philip Fullmer out after a couple of mediocre seasons to appease a disgruntled fanbase, Tennessee hired Lane Kiffin and basically set themselves back a decade. Kiffin bolted after a year, and neither of his successors—Dooley and Jones—have been able to steady the ship. Tennessee, once a powerhouse, melted their program down by getting rid Fullmer. Now they’re a laughingstock. That possibility exists for Georgia as well.

So I have no idea what to do. What I DO know is that yesterday RIcht was outcoached from whistle to gun. Twice in the first half Georgia called an inexplicable timeout when the offense was already set. Twice the team failed to be aggressive and go for it on 4th and 1, once from Alabama’s 40-yard-line. Lambert got sat down for Ramsey, who performed even worse. Sitting Lambert down likely did nothing for his confidence, and this showed when he returned to throw another interception. After the game, Richt talked about changing the system. Some of this was bad luck—all the breaks went Alabama’s way yesterday, and Georgia failed to capitalize on the few opportunities they had. I know we’re not in freefall, but nobody had any answers for what’s going wrong right now. Things need to get better, and FAST, or this year is going to be another wash for a team that should be competitive.

Every single year, Georgia will lose at least one game it should win. We often come out flat after bye weeks, or play our worst game against our best opponent. All of those are problems that better coaching could address and potentially fix. Yesterday, I heard a fellow fan excuse our dismal, shitty performance by saying “This isn’t an elimination game for us. It is for them.” First of all, there’s never an excuse for playing as poorly as we did yesterday. This Georgia team is as talented as Alabama, if not moreso. But this comment stuck with me, because I think it’s indicative of the problem. Until we get someone who realizes that they’re ALL elimination games, we may have a lot more days like yesterday in store.

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