ATHENS – It wasn’t Mark Richt’s intention to contrast the recent state of two college football programs Tuesday when he praised Boise State. But the words just sort of tumbled out that way.
“They know what they’re doing, they believe in what they’re doing,” the Georgia coach said Tuesday. “Teams with a habit of winning are hard to beat.”
When the Bulldogs face Boise State on Saturday night in the Georgia Dome, it will be an opener like no other Richt has had. That’s not merely because most believe this season will determine his future. It’s just that nobody can be sure what to make of the Georgia program right now.
We know athletes still flock to the program because recruiting services tell us so. We know they can still sell tickets and romance donors and build wonderful facilities. But are they still a player where it counts most? Richt went 48-18 (.727) in 66 SEC games beginning in 2002 but is only 5-9 (.357) since. The Bulldogs went 24-11 against ranked opponents from 2002 through mid-2008 but are 2-8 since.
Boise State begins this season ranked fifth. The last time Georgia defeated an opponent that highly ranked was in 2006 (37-15 over Auburn). Since then, the Dogs have lost four consecutive to top 5 opponents by 39, 7, 24 and 18 points.
Georgia has had a number of habits in the past two seasons, but winning is not one of them. Losing Saturday won’t necessarily stamp this season as a lost cause any more than winning the game would ensure success. But perceptions swing heavily this week, and they should. If you choose to embrace the endless blather about how an SEC team should beat a bunch of spud boys from Idaho who play home games on blue turf and in a weak conference, fine. But what exactly has Georgia done of late, other than lose to Colorado and Central Florida?
“I don’t personally think the season’s riding on the one game,” Richt said Tuesday. “It’s really not. But it’s a game we absolutely want to win. It’s a game that we expect to win. It has no bearing on the Southeastern Conference race. But what I do think it will do is give us a pretty good feel for what we’re made of. It will give us a pretty good idea what it’s going to take down the road.”
Richt knows. His players, his program and his fan base are in no position to mock diminish Boise State’s accomplishments. Or mock anybody. They finished 6-7 last season and did not beat a team last season that finished with a winning record. Two years ago, Richt fired several assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Willie Martinez. This year, he demoted strength coach Dave Van Halanger and promoted Joe Tereshinski.
He is running out of scapegoats.
Nobody questions Georgia’s talent. For Georgia to defeat Boise State or South Carolina next week, it will need to excel in areas that it simply hasn’t of late. Playing smart. Playing tough. Blocking and tackling. Showing some semblance of resolve.
Tight end Orson Charles said the first two games “will make or break our season. We’ll definitely know where we stand.”
Quarterback Aaron Murray said, “We want to be the kind of team that’s beating these top teams. We need to go out and prove it.”
Richt struggled to answer why Georgia fizzled in so many games last season.
“Is it because of the physical nature?” he said. “Is it because a guy couldn’t make a play or the ball bounced the wrong way? That may be. But we just need to get beyond that.”
After a while, the wrong things can become habitual. They begin to define a program. If Georgia wants to alter perceptions, it needs to start this week.
By Jeff Schultz