Seasons can be confounding things. Georgia lost its first two games and its coach was thought by some to be a goner. Now Mark Richt stands one game from solidifying his position once and for all. (Well, at least until 2012.) The game will be played in Jacksonville, the place where Richt fares worst, but still: If the Bulldogs win Saturday, they’ll surely finish no worse than 8-4 and they could well win the SEC East, and either way significant improvement will have been shown.
Consider, on the other hand, Georgia Tech. The Jackets won their first six games and rose to No. 12 in the Associated Press poll. They’ve since lost to two unranked opponents and figure to be underdogs in three of their remaining four games. What appeared to be a bounceback season could become something far less, and a 7-5 record wouldn’t satisfy anyone. Not after the 6-7 of 2010. Not after starting 6-0. Should Tech prove unable to arrest its slide, it would represent the first real reversal of Paul Johnson’s stewardship.
Here we pause for stipulations: Tech’s 6-0 start was largely a function of schedule, the same as Georgia’s 0-2 beginning, the same as the Bulldogs’ five consecutive victories. (Georgia’s four SEC wins have come against opponents that are an aggregate 1-15 in league play.) But you can only beat the teams you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. And football, for all its intricacies, is often a game of sheer momentum. Georgia and Richt have found it. Tech and Johnson have lost it.
There are moments where you’d swear this Georgia team is scarcely an improvement over last season’s, but this team — key difference — hasn’t fumbled away so many winnable games. (Only one so far, that against South Carolina.) A starving Bulldog Nation will take the thinnest of victories over the hated Gators and treat it like fiilet mignon. And even if Georgia somehow contrived to lose to Auburn and Tech, it would be hard to part with Richt after a season in which he finally negotiated his tripwire game.
Tech could lose every game from here until New Year’s and Johnson wouldn’t be going anywhere. He remains in high esteem among his constituency. But here’s a cold slice of truth: The man who beat Georgia in Year 1 and won the ACC in Year 2 has gone 7-7 over his past 14 games. Last season’s collapse could be attributed to the loss of quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who broke his arm at Virginia Tech on Nov. 4. These past two losses have been far more troubling.
When all else failed, Tech under Johnson could always be counted on to do one thing as well as any team in the land — run the ball. Heck, the Jackets rushed for 411 yards behind a backup quarterback against Georgia last year. In the losses at Virginia and Miami, Tech could muster only a total of 406 yards rushing.
If you’re a Tech fan, that’s scary stuff. It suggests the Jackets’ talent has grown so thin it can no longer power an offense that has been proved to work. After the Miami loss, Johnson suggested Tech was getting the five-blockers-on-four-defenders looks that mandate running up the middle as opposed to pitching wide, but that “the four [defenders] are winning.” That’s not a schematic issue. That’s a failure of manpower.
Most all the players he inherited from Chan Gailey are gone, and in four recruiting classes Johnson hasn’t yet found a talent on the order of Nesbitt or Jonathan Dwyer or Demaryius Thomas. (Unless it’s freshman quarterback Vad Lee, who’s being redshirted.) And if Tech can no longer do well what it has come to do best … well, what hope is there?
But that’s another thing about seasons. Just because you look awful one week doesn’t mean the next will yield greater misery. Georgia stunk out the joint in its opener against Boise State, but here the Bulldogs are, back in the Top 25. Even if Tech still has to face Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia, all three games will be staged at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and Johnson is a fairly daunting figure as an underdog. (Ask Georgia.)
Tech could still make something of its season. Georgia could still find a way to mess up. Right now, though, only one team is on the upward trail, and that’s the one bound for Jacksonville.
By Mark Bradley