Georgia has a problem. Actually, Georgia has several problems, but for today we’ll concern ourselves with one. His name is Paul Johnson. He coaches Georgia Tech. And he continues to prove just how much of a difference one determined man can make.
Tech was a notch above mediocrity when Johnson took over. Today it is 5-1 and underrated at No. 19. It is coming off its first-ever victory in Tallahassee on a night when the Jackets might have lost a dozen different times. But it won because Johnson has both a clever plan and a personality large enough to make large young men do his bidding. Which brings us to Mark Richt.
There was a time when Richt was the man with the plan. He arrived from Tallahassee and promised to Finish The Drill and proceeded, in Year 2, to Knock The Lid Off a long-frustrated program. His men began to believe in their coach — P-44-Haynes in Knoxville and 70X Takeoff that cold day at Auburn made believing easy — and soon Georgia was the rising power in the nation’s best conference.
Today Georgia rises no more. Today Georgia keeps tripping and falling. The Bulldogs are 9-6 over their past 15 games. They have lost to Florida by 39 points and now to Tennessee by 26, meaning the two worst losses in Richt’s nine seasons have come within a 49-week span. This is not a program getting better, or even holding its ground. This is a program in decline.
Georgia is 100th in the nation in scoring defense, 97th in total offense, 116th in penalties, 118th (of 120) in turnover margin. With those numbers, it’s lucky to be 3-3.
But now we check the recruiting rankings, as offered by Rivals.com. Georgia was third nationally in 2002, sixth in 2003 and 2004, 1oth in 2005, fourth in 2006, ninth in 2007, seventh in 2008, sixth in 2009. Yet the Bulldogs did not receive a single 25th-place vote in this week’s Associated Press poll. And now we must raise the issue Steve Spurrier hoisted on Nov. 11, 1991, in Jacksonville:
“Georgia gets all these recruits. I don’t know what happens to them.”
The loss in Knoxville on Saturday was the worst, perception-wise if not number-wise, of Richt’s career. It was, not to be unkind, a Ray Goff-like loss. Georgia lost to Tennessee by 26 points with the Vols in Year 1 under a coach of uncertain portfolio. His offense managed three points. His defense yielded 472 yards. Which brings us back to Tech.
The Jackets yielded 44 points and 539 yards to Florida State on Saturday. Difference was, Tech won. Tech had the strength of will — a strength fueled by its coach — to keep fighting. Georgia got a bad call for excessive celebration against LSU and seized it as that week’s excuse. Tech and Johnson accept no excuses. You fumble the ball, you go get it back.
If you’re seeking a play that defines the growing gap between Tech and Georgia, it was Josh Nesbitt re-stealing the ball from Nigel Carr, who’d recovered a fourth-quarter fumble. The Tech quarterback — the Tech quarterback — made a great play from a terrible one. Georgia makes the occasional play because of its talent, but talent alone has ceased to be sufficient.
Paul Johnson rolled in and refused to settle for so-so. At issue now is whether Mark Richt, who elevated Georgia to the pinnacle of the SEC, will stand and watch his program deteriorate. He needs better coaches around him. He needs to connect with the Bulldogs in 2009 the way he did the Bulldogs of 2002. He needs to do something this minute because he’s the guy with the TV show and the Ford truck ads and the $2.8 million salary.
Georgia fans aren’t oblivious. They see the difference being made by one forceful man at the North Avenue Trade School. What they need now is to see their coach again make that sort of difference. That’s assuming their coach still can.