At the absolute worst, Georgia figures to finish its regular season 10-2. Just last year, a 10-2 regular season yielded an SEC East title and bought Mark Richt a contract extension and was taken as a sign that Georgia football was on the ascent. To go 10-2 again, assuming this 10-2 includes a loss to Florida and the absence of another division title, would be taken as an abject reversal.
Here’s where the Bulldogs’ bunny schedule serves as both boon and burden. Georgia still must play Kentucky, Ole Miss, Auburn and Georgia Tech; the aggregate record of those teams is 7-16. The Bulldogs also will face Georgia Southern, which plays at a lesser level. If Georgia beats those five but loses to Florida, it will be described, oddly but accurately, as a 10-2 underachiever.
When the Bulldogs were going 8-5 in 2009 and 6-7 the next season, the question became: Would they ever win big again? They’ve since gone 15-5, which would seem to offer an answer, but in light of the drubbing administered by South Carolina we note there can be a difference between Winning Big and Winning Big Games. Georgia has come to occupy the space between.
Its last victory over a Top 10 team came when it defeated No. 7 Georgia Tech on Nov. 28, 2009. The Bulldogs last beat an SEC team ranked in the Top 10 on Oct. 27, 2007 (No. 9 Florida in the Gator Stomp game). Their last victory over anybody in the top five came against No. 5 Auburn on Nov. 11, 2006. Since Oct. 30, 2008, Georgia is 4-13 against ranked opposition, and three of those times the Bulldogs were the higher-ranked team.
Coming off their 2011 turnaround, these Bulldogs figured to have much working for them: A fourth-year junior at quarterback, nine defensive starters who are either seniors or juniors and, above all, the softest of schedules. But when you play so few games against opponents of comparable worth and you lose them all, that schedule turns against you. It makes you seem a team that is, as Lou Holtz once said, living a lie.
It would one be one thing if the Bulldogs were capable of no more, if the only thing enabling them to be ranked at all was the canny maximization of modest resources. But you cannot recruit at such an exalted level and then claim personnel bankruptcy. There aren’t 10 more talented teams in the land. So why, when it comes time to step up in class, does Georgia invariably flunk?
We cannot help but look to the coach. It’s his program. He hired these high-salaried assistants, recruited these star-spangled players. And isn’t as if Richt has never won a Big Game: From 2002 through Jan. 1, 2008, Georgia was 22-10 against ranked opponents. It is 6-14 since. It has become the classic bully: It terrorizes the small fry but turns tail when the big boys show up.
After winning the East last year, the Bulldogs faced No. 1 LSU and lost 42-10. After rising to No. 5 in the land this season, they played South Carolina in Columbia and lost 35-7. That’s a 60-point spread in prove-it games, and the latter loss was truly alarming. Georgia wasn’t ready to handle a team like LSU last season, but 1o months later it was even less prepared for what the Gamecocks unleashed. Isn’t experience supposed to be a teaching tool?
Maybe it can still be one. This year isn’t over. If Georgia can beat Florida, there’s a chance the Bulldogs can again win the East. South Carolina would have to lose twice, but its next two games are against LSU and Florida on the road. Even so, the sight of the Gators again on the rise is surely disquieting: Of the four times Georgia has won the SEC East, three came in Year 1 after a Florida coaching change, and the fourth was in Ron Zook’s final season. This is Year 2 for Will Muschamp, and Florida just climbed to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll.
Having lost three in a row to South Carolina, Georgia has already fallen behind the Gamecocks in both standings and hierarchy. If Florida jumps back ahead of the Bulldogs, the Richt renaissance will have been the briefest of moments. His program will be in danger of falling into the hole from which he once rescued it: That time in the ’90s when Florida and Tennessee owned the division and Georgia, under Ray Goff and Jim Donnan, was relegated to third place.
This looked to be the season Richt and his Bulldogs consolidated their hold on the division, and they might yet. But anything less than an East title would rekindle all those questions about Richt. There’s no way Georgia would move to fire a coach who wins 10 games two years running; there’s also no way the second 10-2 would feel half as good as the first.
At some point Georgia has to answer the question, “Yeah, but who did you beat?” And that answer cannot continue to be, “Well, there was that Tech game back in ‘09 …”
By Mark Bradley