This time a year ago, both fan bases would have taken what each wound up getting — a substantial upgrade over 6-7 — and been happy. But Georgia’s season of re-emergence ended with two losses, and Georgia Tech’s 6-0 start became a 2-5 finish.
As 2012 begins, each side has cause for optimism. (Two-thirds of the starters on both Tech and Georgia are scheduled to return.) But there’s a bit of doubt that will nag at both programs, and it has nothing to do with special teams. In each case, it’s a broader-based concern.
For Georgia, it’s the issue of bona fides as yet unproven. Bulldog fans love to make light of the ACC, but this is one time when that jibe has a double edge. A case can be made that the best of Georgia’s 10 victories came over an ACC team. (Meaning the win at Tech, which finished 8-5.)
Here were Georgia’s seven victories over SEC opponents: Ole Miss, which finished 2-10; Mississippi State, 7-6; Tennessee, 5-7; Vanderbilt, 6-7; Florida, 7-6; Auburn, 8-5; Kentucky, 5-7.) Everyone knows that the Bulldogs were spared from having to face LSU, Alabama and Arkansas in the regular season, and they’ll miss them again in 2012. And with no Boise State on the 2012 schedule, it’s possible Georgia could again win the SEC East and still not know exactly how good it is. Or isn’t.
This is where the Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State hurts. The Spartans entered ranked above Georgia in both the Associated Press and the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, and simply by holding a 16-point lead — or by making a field goal in Overtime No. 1 — the Bulldogs could have snagged a victory of some substance. (Even if it was against the Big Ten, another league SEC devotees love to derogate.)
If you’re Georgia, you can look at the assembled talent and those 10 victories and feel good about the future. But until the Bulldogs actually beat somebody really good, the question of whether this team can beat somebody really good will linger.
For Georgia Tech, it’s the issue of talent. Given that the Jackets placed one man — guard Omoregie Uzzi — on the all-ACC first team, we can make the case that an 8-5 season reflects great value. But the days of Paul Johnson being able to outflank everybody (or almost everybody) just because he’s Paul Johnson are, if not gone, then going.
In Johnson’s first two seasons, Tech was 20-7. In his most recent two, the Jackets were 14-12. Johnson took NFL-caliber talent inherited from his predecessor and elevated it, beating Georgia in Year 1 and winning the ACC in Year 2. Much of that holdover talent exited after the 2009 season, and it hasn’t yet been replaced.
Put simply, Tech no longer passes the eyeball test. (Sorry to invoke a Kirk Herbstreit image.) To watch Tech at its best is to think, “That’s a smart and resourceful team,” but no longer does this seem a program of imposing physical resources. And if the aim is to keep playing for championships, that’s a key consideration.
The Jackets were in position to do something this season but hit the talent wall. Unless/until better players are found, that wall will stand. Tech fans have derided Georgia’s heralded recruiting class of 2011, but a similar Dream Team would not be unwelcome at the Institute.
By Mark Bradley