JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There are those rare games that can unify a fan base. This is one of them.
Just for a moment, put aside that Georgia’s defense has underachieved and may have a level of dysfunctionality in the locker room. Put aside that the Bulldogs, in a week where they should’ve been focused and in assault mode, made Kentucky look relevant. Put aside whatever it was that happened in Columbia.
One game changes everything.
Georgia isn’t just playing Florida on Saturday in Jacksonville. It’s playing for a chance to change its season and obliterate perceptions about “big game” performances. That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs haven’t won big games under coach Mark Richt, but the results in recent seasons certainly aren’t something that any coach wants slapped on his resume: 3-11 against Top 25 teams since 2009, 1-9 against top 10 teams since 2008.
One win over Florida, the No. 2 team in the BCS, would act like a bucket of Kilz. Clean wall, fresh start, new season. It would put the Dogs in control in the SEC East and give them a chance to return to the SEC title game. All of their goals, save an undefeated season, would be restored.
Is Georgia capable of beating Florida? Of course. The perceived talent on this defense is unequaled by most programs in the nation. The freshmen running backs are solid, and the quarterback, Aaron Murray, is solid and certainly the better of the two in this game.
There’s just all of this baggage. The season hasn’t been nearly what anybody expected. A record of 6-1 looks good in most college towns, but not when it’s owned by a projected top-10 (at least) team with a soft schedule, and that team was absolutely bodyslammed by its only ranked opponent (South Carolina).
“I’m sure it gnaws on Aaron, and it gnaws on everybody — we all want to win the big game,” wide receiver Marlon Brown said. “If we win this game, the fans maybe will stop talking about the South Carolina game.”
Questions about games like this always seem to wind up at the same intersection: What does this mean for Mark Richt?
It’s not a situation exclusive to Athens. It happens at every major college football program, and certainly on every campus in the SEC (save, maybe, Vanderbilt). As many as four conference schools (Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn) may change coaches after this season. Among those who soon could be out of a job: Gene Chizik, who won a national championship at Auburn two years ago.
The sparks around Richt have lingered really since 2008, when lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida derailed SEC and BCS title hopes. Even the 10-game winning streak after the 0-2 start last season didn’t appease all critics because none of the wins came over great teams (Auburn was No. 24, Georgia Tech No. 25 by the Associated Press).
So what would it mean to Richt if the Bulldogs lost? I’m not sure anything.
Richt obviously needs this to alter perceptions by some that his program has hit a ceiling. But if the Dogs lose in Jacksonville and then win the remainder of their games, they will finish the season 10-2 (pre-bowl).
I can’t claim to know what’s going on inside the head of athletic director Greg McGarity. But canning a head coach with a 10-2 record just doesn’t seem plausible – especially if the second loss came to the No. 2 team in the country.
That said, Richt will have to do as good a coaching job as he ever has to pull off a win. He will have to unify his players. One of the team’s co-captains, safety Shawn Williams, vented earlier in the week about the defense playing soft. He might’ve been right. But the bigger issue came when Williams suggested lineup changes, which effectively threw two of his teammates, linebackers Michael Gilliard and Christian Robinson, under the bus.
Gilliard said he “felt disrespected.” Robinson said, “I’m not mad at (Williams),” but disputed his comments and said, “I’ve got to go back to work with him and we’ve got a big game to win.”
A bigger game than we’ve seen for some time.
By Jeff Schultz
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