ATHENS — It was supposed to be easier than this.
But then, so was the Colorado game.
So was the Mississippi State game.
So was . . . well, let’s just assumed “easy” left town with Louisiana-Lafayette 12 weeks ago.
The offensive line hasn’t been the dominating unit that Georgia expected. The defense under Todd Grantham certainly hasn’t improved like expected. (Did Willie Martinez leave just his playbook in Athens or was that his spirit?) The physical and mental edge that the Bulldogs have often lacked over the past three seasons? Still lacking.
This is what Georgia fans get in 2010: a 6-6 record in this season’s deep sea of 6-6 records. The Dogs won 42-34 over Georgia Tech on Saturday. They became bowl eligible, not because they were much better than the Yellow Jackets but because — until a touchdown with 1:29 left — the opposing kicker had missed an extra point.
The teams combined for six turnovers plus a botched opening kickoff return by Georgia. When the Dogs and Jackets accounted for three fumbles in four exchanges, I’m pretty sure every bowl official in attendance stood up and left.
But if you’re a Georgia fan this season, you take it. Why? Because a win at least makes the 6-6 record far more appealing aesthetically than 5-7. Because a bad bowl game is better than no bowl game. Because this season has predominantly lacked beauty from the outset, save the acrobatics of A.J. Green and the surprising play of freshman quarterback Aaron Murray.
In retrospect, it was silly to think that the fact the Dogs were two-touchdown favorites suddenly would propel them to a dominating performance.
“It would’ve been sickening to be 5-7 right now and for the season to be over,” coach Mark Richt said.
Who knew a bottom-tier bowl game in Birmingham or Memphis could look like paradise?
It was nearly three months ago to the day Saturday when Richt looked ahead to this season like a child peering through the window of a toy store. He talked about his offensive line. He talked about veteran leadership. He talked about a turnaround on defense. But when asked for a won-loss projection based on the schedule, he balked.
“I used to do it more than I do now,” he said in August. “What year was it — [Matthew] 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.”
Sort of like this year. There’s no spinning it. The season went sideways, and the Dogs have been wobbling almost from Day 1.
Richt will be back next season, and he should be back because winning two SEC titles in his first five seasons earns him the right to fix the problems. But he has a lot of problems to fix.
He can leave Murray alone. The young quarterback entered this season as the team’s biggest question mark, and he ended it as one of its few strengths. But almost every other area is due for an overhaul.
It wasn’t difficult to tell this was a game between 5-6 and 6-5 teams. The Dogs’ Shaun Chapas dropped the opening kickoff and Tech recovered (technically it’s not a fumble, just early humiliation). But the Jackets failed to score on that possession or the next one, despite starting at the Georgia 27 and 46. Their second drive? It ended with a fumble.
In the end, it wasn’t so much which team had fewer thumbs — we’ll call that one a tie — but which best took advantage. The Jackets’ first three fumbles all led to Georgia touchdowns. The Dogs’ fumbles led to bupkis for Tech.
Murray was phenomenal early, completing 11 of 14 passes for 220 yards in the first half and touchdowns to Kris Durham, Orson Charles and Bruce Figgins. But the Dogs couldn’t get through this without some drama. They jumped to a 14-0 lead and to fizzle ad see Tech come back with touchdowns on three of their next four possessions to tie it at 21-21.
The Dogs jumped back ahead by two touchdowns on a Washaun Ealey run and a Justin Houston 18-yard return of a fumble. But the Jackets, who had 512 yards in offense (411 on the ground), drove through the Dogs’ defense for two more scores.
Only a missed a extra point by kicker Scott Blair with 4:57 left kept the Dogs ahead, at 35-34.
Defensive end Akeem Dent, on the field, turned around just in time to see the miss.
“I turned and looked and was like: I know he didn’t miss it. Did he miss it?” Dent said.
A 20-yard touchdown run by Ealey with 1:29 left made it 42-34. Tech had one last possession fall short.
Two 6-6 teams stumbled over the finish line.
“I don’t care what bowl game we’re going to,” Green said in likely his final game at Sanford Stadium. “It’s better than going home right now.”
After the disappointment of the 2008 season with Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno and the pronounced slide of the last two years, it’s clear Georgia’s future doesn’t come with any guarantees. Richt doesn’t need to fix the quarterback. But he needs to fix everything else.