Georgia and Georgia Tech each finished 6-7 after being ranked in the preseason Top 25, but that’s all the programs have in common. Tech lacks players. Georgia lacks coaching. All things considered, you’d rather be Tech.
There’s a chance Paul Johnson, stylized offense and all, can sign enough players to lift Tech to another ACC title. There’s less a chance Mark Richt will ever again take his Bulldogs to the SEC summit. What used to be an anomaly has become the norm: When it comes to a big game against an opponent of similar resources, Georgia loses.
Given that Tech lost three of its leading lights — Derrick Morgan, Demaryius Thomas and Jonathan Dwyer — off its conference championship team to the NFL a year early and then lost Joshua Nesbitt, its best remaining player, to a broken arm, a case can be made that 6-7 was close to what the Jackets deserved. Yeah, they should have won at Kansas and maybe at Clemson, but in the big picture they underachieved only slightly.
Contrast this with Georgia, which underachieved massively. The Bulldogs returned 10 of 11 offensive starters and saw the one exception — quarterback Aaron Murray — become the team MVP, and still they couldn’t beat anybody of note. The records of its victims: Louisiana-Lafayette, 3-9; Tennessee, 6-7; Vanderbilt, 2-10; Kentucky, 6-6; Idaho State, 1-10, and Tech, 6-7.
Think about that: A team with Murray and A.J. Green (for nine of 13 games, anyway) and Justin Houston and Washaun Ealey and Kris Durham could not beat a single team that has finished with a winning record. (Kentucky still has a no-account bowl to play.) To borrow Urban Meyer’s pithy description: Whenever the checkers were nearly equal, Richt and his staff proceeded to get double-jumped.
The belief here is that matters will get no better so long as Richt is place. Whatever was working when he was winning SEC titles has stopped working. This isn’t a case of One Down Year. If we look back to 2006, when Georgia was 9-4 coming off a conference championship, it has been a downward spiral interrupted only by the 11-2 uptick of 2007. Over his first five seasons Richt lost 13 games; over the past five he has lost 21.
At Tech, Johnson still must prove he can win without benefit of Chan Gailey’s players. In Athens, Richt still must prove he can win with his own players. There was no reason that a team of such resources should have failed to score a touchdown against Central Florida — East Carolina managed five touchdowns against the Knights on Oct. 30 — but that, sad to say, is the new reality: Whatever it takes to lose, Georgia does.
Having dumped three defensive assistants last winter and re-assigned his strength coach last month, Richt has fired pretty much everyone around him. The greater problem remains: Richt is no longer the daring young coach who restored Georgia to eminence. Going for a field goal on the game’s first drive against Central Florida? Would that have happened in 2002? For all his offseason declarations that the fire in his belly had been re-stoked, his gastric flame has been reduced to embers.
Tech’s issues are of a different sort. Johnson cannot simply seek to outflank everyone all the time. When you’re as clever as he is, you tend to rely on cleverness, but we saw Nov. 27 the limits of that approach: Johnson outcoached Richt all ends, but Johnson’s team lost. Afterward Tech folks were incongruously giddy because they came fully expecting to be embarrassed, but a program in a BCS league cannot subsist long on moral victories.
The trouble with Tech is that its talent base has slipped into the ACC’s lower half. The trouble with Georgia is that its coach has been rendered substandard. Would any updated ranking of SEC coaches put Richt in the upper half? The upper two-thirds? Add it up: Three of the coaches who lost to the Bulldogs in 2010 are no longer employed; the other three include two first-year men and Johnson. And now you’re saying, “Doesn’t that mean Tech is in worse shape than Georgia?”
Er, no. For Tech to rise again to the top of its conference, Johnson has only to find new players. For Georgia to rise again to the top of its league, it will have to find a new coach.
By Mark Bradley