The SEC East is in flux in a way nobody could have envisioned on Christmas Eve. Urban Meyer resigned and recanted and is said to be relaxing. Tennessee has no coach. Kentucky has a new coach. Vanderbilt … OK, there’s the one constant.
With so much in motion, the moment seems ripe for a stable program to make a bold move upward in 2010. That program would not seem to be Georgia.
Having searched for six weeks, the Bulldogs don’t have a defensive coordinator or a defensive staff. They’ll enter next season with a new quarterback, the result of having left Aaron Murray to redshirt. (A wise choice in most years, but not necessarily in the worst season under this head coach.) Worse still, there’s a growing feeling across the South that Mark Richt is a year away from feeling the big heat.
From MrSEC.com, usually a clearinghouse of conference links, came this post-Kirby-Smart post from John Pennington, its headline reading: “Smart Stays; Richt In Trouble.” Pennington’s argument isn’t that Richt should be in trouble but that, having been spurned three times now by coordinating candidates, he’s being perceived as “inept.”
Short of landing Bill Belichick, it will be nigh-impossible for Georgia to emerge from this protracted search with a coordinator who will satisfy the majority of Dog-lovers. And it does seem troubling that three men who worked in the South and have coached against Georgia — Bud Foster of Virginia Tech, John Chavis of LSU and Alabama’s Kirby Smart, who’s a Bulldog born and bred — saw greater opportunity in the current positions than anything awaiting them in Athens.
Is Georgia now radioactive? Is Richt viewed in the industry as damaged goods? Is there a way for the coach who once moved from strength to strength to overcome this onset of weakness?
Sure. There’s a way. Just win, baby. (That’s Al Davis’ signature quote. The second-most famous Al Davis utterance: “Lane Kiffin is a flat-out liar.”) But I don’t see Georgia as poised to win big even in an SEC East that’s without Tebow, without Kiffin and perhaps without Meyer. Indeed, if you’re looking for the program harboring realistic expectations of a 2010 breakthrough, look first to the one that has never won anything of consequence.
It has a head coach, which puts it ahead of Tennessee and perhaps Florida, and he has a national championship in his portfolio. It has a defensive coordinator, which puts it ahead of Georgia, and Ellis Johnson is a fine one. Its quarterback is returning, along with 15 other starters on offense and defense. And it plays Georgia in Columbia on Sept. 11.
No, the Gamecocks weren’t much good in 2009: They finished 7-6 and looked awful in losing the Papajohns.com Bowl to Connecticut. But the new season is another day, and long-suffering Gamecock fans get geeked up for every next season as a matter of course. This time they might actually have cause.
Not many Georgia fans seem similarly enthused, at least not at the moment. The coordinator search won’t go on forever, but it has left a mark on the Bulldog psyche. Georgia fans are like most: They can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to come coach their team. But they’ve just seen three men choose to remain in place despite the lure of big money at UGA.
We learned in 2005, when he won the SEC in his first season without David Greene and David Pollack and Brian VanGorder, not to dismiss Mark Richt. We saw it again this season when he took his worst team and beat Georgia Tech’s best aggregation in a decade. That said, the prevailing wind now seems to be blowing against him.
He’s 14-8 over the past 22 games. (And that’s with victories in the final two of 2009.) He can wind up making a good hire and it won’t be seen as such. Some of the UGA fans who once swore by Richt have taken up a different brand of swearing. As Pennington suggested, Richt is no longer the fresh prince of the SEC but an elder and somewhat diminished statesman.
Five years ago I wouldn’t have thought Richt and Georgia incapable of anything. Now, heaven help me, I see South Carolina as the program on the rise. South Carolina, of all teams.