It ended as it began: A massive Georgia contingent arrived at the Dome for a hugely anticipated game against a brand-name opponent, and the folks wearing red went home early. On Sept. 3 the Bulldogs led Boise State 7-0 and lost by two touchdowns; on Dec. 3 they led LSU by 10 points and lost by 32. And now you’re asking: This is progress?
Absolutely. The Boise game was a function of scheduling: Georgia’s choices were either to play or forfeit. The LSU game was for the championship of the nation’s best conference, and the Bulldogs had to win their way there. For the first time since 2005, the Bulldogs graced the big December game in the big city, and to qualify they had to rise from a 6-7 season and a Liberty Bowl to, ahem, Central Florida.
Another way in which the Boise loss wasn’t the LSU loss: Georgia was outfought and out-thought against the Broncos. As tight end Orson Charles admitted not long ago, “The first game was too big for us.” The only thing too big for Georgia on Saturday was its opponent.
The Georgia Bulldogs have played a lot of good teams over their long and distinguished history, but they might never have played one so physically imposing. There have been collegiate teams with greater skill, but as far as running fast and hitting hard the 2011 LSU Tigers might rank near the top of any list you’d care to compile.
To its credit, Georgia started fast and furious. Had it not dropped two touchdown passes and missed a field goal — and had the replay official been more diligent after Tyrann Mathieu flipped the ball to the official at the end of his first epic punt return — the Bulldogs could have led by 17 or 21 points and the game would have changed. LSU would probably have changed quarterbacks. (Coach Les Miles admitted afterward he was considering it at 10-0.) LSU would have had to throw the ball, which isn’t what LSU wants to do. That said …
LSU still might have won. There’s an indomitable nature to these Tigers that comes from being secure in their physical gifts, but such self-assurance is also fueled by the knowledge that they’ve played and won a bunch of big games against teams of comparable worth. Georgia still can’t say as much. Its biggest victories en route to the Dome were against Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech, which lost a total of 15 games. LSU’s biggest victories were against Oregon, Alabama and Arkansas, which lost a total of five games.
This isn’t to say Georgia can’t ascend to that exalted plane. The Bulldogs could return as many as 16 starters and, apart from tailback Isaiah Crowell and receiver Malcolm Mitchell, the effect of the Dream Team recruiting class hasn’t been felt. Georgia will be a Top 10 pick in preseason and the favorite to win the SEC East. (And with Florida and Tennessee in clear retreat, Vanderbilt might be tabbed third behind South Carolina.)
Better still, the Bulldogs proved in 2011 that coaching, which failed in 2009 and 2010, is no longer an issue. Todd Grantham’s defense was tremendous. (Can’t do any better than holding the nation’s No. 1 team to no first downs in a half.) Mark Richt recommitted himself to offensive scheming, and the results were apparent. He and Mike Bobo stitched together a cohesive attack without benefit of a reliable tailback, which isn’t easy to do.
That said: The key issue over the winter might again be the question of Crowell. His signing topped off the Dream Team last February, and his first appearance against Boise State was greeted with a mighty cheer. Contrast that to the boos spawned by his third and fourth limp-offs against LSU. Clearly Crowell has tried his coaches’ patience: He was disciplined twice this season, and Saturday he drew an unsportsmanlike penalty from the bench. Two weeks ago Richt, casting an eye toward the recruit Keith Marshall of Raleigh, noted the “tremendous opportunity” awaiting a running back at Georgia.
And he’s right. There is opportunity here, not just for a tailback but for a team. Georgia figures to be back in the SEC title game next year, and in December 2012 the Tigers — don’t look now, but LSU is also scheduled to return 16 starters — mightn’t hold the same edge in manpower and mindset.
In his final words to the media Saturday night, Richt said: “I don’t think we’re that far off. I really don’t.”
Right again. A team that couldn’t break .500 last year just played for an SEC championship. The Bulldogs will play for another soon enough, and before long they’ll win one.
By Mark Bradley