If Mark Richt doesn’t win the SEC East next year, he never will again. I know how simplistic that sounds, but the 2011 Georgia season can be boiled down to these basics:
Richt hasn’t won the SEC East since 2005. Florida, which has won it three times since then, just hired a career assistant to replace a man who took two BCS titles. South Carolina, which won the East for the first time ever, is demonstrably not unbeatable — it lost the SEC championship by 39 points — and must play in Athens next season.
Beyond that, there’s little else to know. Richt dumped three of his four defensive coaches last December and changed his strength coach two weeks ago. He has fired essentially everyone he can — Mike Bobo’s detractors will raise a howl, but Georgia did score at least 31 points in seven consecutive games to end the 2010 regular season — without pointing the finger at himself.
Richt is 44-20 over the past five seasons, 23-17 in SEC play. Jim Donnan, by way of comparison, was 40-19 and 25-15 in his five seasons at Georgia — and got fired. Richt lost five games in 2009 and has lost six in 2010. The Georgia program hasn’t been on an uptick since the end of the 2007 season, which was so long ago Knowshon Moreno was a redshirt freshman.
And now Florida has, in its nefarious way, ramped up the pressure on Richt by hiring Will Muschamp, the Rome native and former Bulldog whom some fans had hoped would be the next man in Athens. Muschamp was so well regarded in Texas he’d been designated the coach-in-waiting, but the reality is that he’s 0-0 as a head coach. He could do well. He could also be Ron Zook.
Florida is vulnerable in a way it hasn’t been since the overmatched Zooker was in charge. (Even Urban Meyer described the Gators as “broken.”) South Carolina filled the gap this fall, but even in a breakthrough season the Gamecocks didn’t bear the look of a colossus. They lost three regular-season games and nearly threw away the division title. They’ll be good again — Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery return — but probably not great.
Georgia has the sort of schedule that can make for a great season. Its road games: At Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. The collective 2010 record for that foursome is 18-30. The Bulldogs don’t play Alabama, Arkansas or LSU. (They do open against Boise State at the Georgia Dome, but next year’s Boise won’t be this year’s Boise.) If Georgia can beat South Carolina at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 10, it should be undefeated when it plays in Jacksonville two days before Halloween.
Two caveats, though: Georgia is no longer a lock in games it should win, and Richt is never a lock against Florida. He has a losing record against each of the three Gator coaches he has opposed, the Zooker among them. But if Richt in Year 11 can’t beat Muschamp in Year 1, something’s wrong.
The Bulldogs effectively retired their “Finish The Drill” slogan with the re-assignment of Dave Van Halanger, creator of those mat drills. Just as well. Next year’s theme can only be, “No Excuses.” This listing program has exhausted those.
A.J. Green will surely be gone to the NFL, which means he can sell his Liberty Bowl jersey without fear of NCAA reprisal. Todd Grantham will be in his second season of defensive coordination, which means convenient bailout — “They’re still learning the system” — won’t apply. Assuming Cam Newton leaves Auburn and Ryan Mallett exits Arkansas, Georgia will enter next season with the SEC’s best quarterback. (Even if they stick around, Aaron Murray will be the class of the East.)
The chief argument Richt’s defenders make is a tepid one: That he has earned the chance to fix what’s wrong with Georgia. This neatly overlooks the greater truth, which is that the program has gone wrong on his watch. If Georgia doesn’t get fixed in 2011, a new fixer will be required. If Richt can’t win the East next fall, Georgia needs to find someone who can.
By Mark Bradley