AUBURN, Ala. — On the weekend of Cam-demonium, the Georgia Bulldogs were rendered a footnote. But one snippet of semi-news did emerge Saturday morning, courtesy of the Denver Post: Colorado is apparently interested in Mark Richt to fill its coaching vacancy.
And that might be the best for all concerned: Richt to the Rocky Mountains and a new challenge, Georgia spared a decision no program wants to make. Namely, when and how do you say goodbye to a man who lifted your program but seems incapable of further lifting?
In Year 2 under Gene Chizik, the Auburn Tigers clinched the SEC West by winning Saturday. In Year 10 under Richt, the Georgia Bulldogs fell to 5-6.
Said Bacarri Rambo, the safety: “I never thought the University of Georgia could be 5-6.”
Said Akeem Dent, the linebacker: “That would not make sense to anybody.”
It doesn’t make sense, but it’s grim reality. Georgia was 8-5 last season, its worst under Richt, and it will be worse this time — worse with 10 of 11 offensive starters returning plus a hotshot quarterback making his debut, worse with a $750,000 defensive coordinator hired as a presumed upgrade.
Georgia took a 21-7 lead on the nation’s No. 2 team Saturday, whereupon Todd Grantham’s defense yielded touchdowns on six of the next seven possessions. Yes, Auburn has a great offense, and yes, after days of uncertainty the famous Cam Newton not only played but played beautifully. Still: Had the Bulldog defenders even practiced?
Linebacker Justin Houston on Newton: “He didn’t do anything special.”
Then, asked how Auburn could score seven touchdowns and amass 463 yards: “Blown assignments — that’s what has been going on all season.”
How could a defense still be making mistakes in its 11th game? Have players not yet learned the scheme? Houston again: “I guess not. Some guys are not as focused as they need to be.”
That indictment of Grantham is a greater indictment of Richt. The failing of Georgia this season hasn’t been skill or desire but stamina. Players appear to tire, and even the coaching seems to flag.
Georgia had it going Saturday. The Bulldogs were throwing deep off play-action — Auburn doesn’t play much D, either — and running hard, and then coordinator Mike Bobo ordered a direct snap to receiver Branden Smith that gained nothing on second-and-five and blunted a second-quarter drive. Why throw a change-up when they haven’t hit your fastball?
Soon the game was tied, and Richt lost his nerve. Georgia took the ball at its 21 with 51 seconds left in the half and one timeout remaining. It ran a draw to Caleb King and let time expire, content in the belief that it would take possession to begin the second half.
“I guess we didn’t want to make a crazy mistake,” said A.J. Green, who to that point had caught five passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns against Ted Roof’s overmatched secondary. “We took the safe way out.”
Only it wasn’t safe. Chizik called for an onside kick. Auburn retook the lead without Georgia touching the ball. Richt said he told his kickoff-return squad to be wary of such a maneuver. He also said: “I guess you could only tell them so many times.”
Make no mistake: Auburn was the better team. But Georgia had a chance here, and its coaching failed. Same as in Jacksonville. Same as in Starkville. The same thing, again and again.
Richt on this saddening season: “A few key plays, if they went the other way, we win.” Then: “Teams that win championships win close games. We haven’t won a close game yet.”
For the record, Richt spoke in the same room that housed his triumphant press briefing Nov. 16, 2002, the day Georgia beat Auburn in an excruciatingly close game to clinch the SEC East. There was a time when Richt’s teams were the aggressor throughout, when they made the requisite plays at the end. No longer.
Asked about Colorado, Richt smiled and said: “Georgia is my home.”
Asked about Richt, the newly minted Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said: “I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
And yet you wonder if it will ever get better for Mark Richt at Georgia, if we haven’t already seen his best work. His Bulldogs had a chance to grab the nation’s attention Saturday, and they led by 14 points. They lost by 18.
They got weary. Then they got beat. The same thing, again and again.