Here’s a sneak peek at a column that will appear in print in this Sunday’s special AJC College Football Section. The 34-page section will preview Georgia State, Georgia Tech and UGA seasons, the SEC and ACC, top games, Heisman candidates and more.
Nine years ago, Mark Richt lost his first SEC game as a head coach (to South Carolina) and started 4-3 in a conference that generally doesn’t allow for long honeymoon periods, at least not outside of Vanderbilt.
It wasn’t the usual backdrop for what would happen in the next four years. Richt went 44-9 overall and 25-7 in the SEC. He won two conference titles at a school that hadn’t won one since 1982. He won a Sugar Bowl.
What has occurred since at Georgia is less a market correction than it is a changing landscape. Think of the SEC as a boulevard of resort hotels. Richt built what seemed like Xanadu in 2002. The problem came when Les Miles, Florida and Alabama built more lavish structures down the street.
LSU, Florida and Alabama didn’t just win SEC championships. They won national championships — the last four, in fact. Over that same period, Richt went 20-12 in the SEC without making it to the conference title game once.
Xanadu began to look like a slightly weathered Marriott.
Which brings us to 2010. Georgia is not crumbling and Richt is not on the firing line. There has, however, been a leveling off in Athens. To deny that would be like a hotel owner ignoring the other properties that are stealing his business.
The Dogs are somewhere back in the vapor trail left by Florida and Alabama. Richt’s not in denial — otherwise he wouldn’t have fired three assistant coaches after going 8-5 (4-4) last season.
The question now: Is this the bounce-back year? Possibly. Richt may never have a better chance to quiet critics.
The potential pitfalls of starting a redshirt freshman quarterback, Aaron Murray, should be minimized by an experienced offensive line and two key weapons for Murray to feed: A.J. Green and Washaun Ealey. The defense should be significantly improved under Todd Grantham (who is switching to a 3-4).
The schedule? Instead of opening against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, as in 2009, the Bulldogs open against Louisiana-Lafayette in Athens. They don’t play Alabama. They don’t play LSU. They do play Florida, but it would be surprising if the Gators didn’t feel the loss of nine starters in the first five rounds of the NFL draft, including: Tim Tebow, Joe Haden, Maurkice Pouncey, Carlos Dunlap and the serial eye-gouger, Brandon Spikes.
There’s also this: Richt just feels better about his team. Granted, all coaches like their team before opening kickoff, but Richt’s confidence is rooted in something legitimate: strength and stability on his offensive line.
“I like our maturity on offense,” he said. “You see it especially up front, even the non-glamour positions if you want to throw in the fullbacks.
“There’s something about when your offensive linemen are your sages, your veterans, your leaders. When they’re running it, things tend to go well. They’re pretty grounded. They’re not glamorous. They’re really the most unselfish guys on the team. ”
Glamour seldom is Georgia’s problem. It seldom gets more glamorous than Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno in the same backfield. But that was in 2008, and a pre-season No. 1 team wound up getting drilled by Alabama and Florida, losing at home to Georgia Tech and settling for the Capital One Bowl.
Georgia’s problems have been in other areas: a lack of discipline, sometimes passion, sometimes just a seeming willingness to punch the opponent in the mouth.
Experience and the arrival of Grantham, who’s far more fiery than Martinez, should help in those areas. But fire starts at the top and Richt needs to light one with his team.
This season could start well — very well. If the Dogs can get past early tests against South Carolina and Arkansas, they could be 8-0 going to Jacksonville. But Richt knows better than to play “the schedule game.”
“I used to do it more than I do now,” he said. “What year was it – Stafford’s freshman year ? I kind of did it that year a little bit. We didn’t have a great season. Everything looked different than it was. So I don’t do that any more.”
The Dogs were coming off Richt’s second SEC title that year but they went 4-4 in the conference in 2006. The landscape changed. Richt, going into his 10th season, realized Georgia required some renovation.
Now we find out what the place looks like.