It’s been over a month since the last game at Sanford Stadium. We left Sanford on the afternoon of October 3rd deflated after a heartbreaking loss to #4 LSU. Though Georgia did plenty to lose that game – impotent first half offense, allowing two 4th quarter touchdowns, and shoddy kick coverage – the officials served as a convenient lightning rod to draw criticism and blame away from the team.
Saying that the month away from home has been disappointing is an understatement. Georgia has suffered two decisive losses to divisional foes, and a team that headed for Knoxville confident of its ability to play with top 10 teams is now resetting its goals and aiming for bowl eligibility. We’re long past blaming the refs or anything else extraneous; it’s to the point that we’re starting to go overboard in eating our own. Such is the climate to which the Bulldogs return from their month on the road.
It’s pretty easy to guess what kind of reception the Bulldogs will receive at Homecoming: indifference. Questions about empty seats came up at the weekly press conference. The unspoken answer is that there will be many. Those who don’t unload tickets on the babysitter and still decide to come will make up the typically bland Homecoming crowd. The team might or might not play their best game of the year or might turn it over 3 more times, but a 1:00 kickoff, a 1-AA opponent, and a Homecoming game on pay-per-view isn’t going to make much of an impression. Forgive me if I look past this game.
I’m starting to buy in to the idea that the Auburn game in a week is the biggest remaining game on the schedule. That’s not to concede or discount the Tech game (that’s always the game that I circle personally), but I’m thinking more about the need to hold it together in front of a home crowd whose opinions have shifted quite a bit in such a short time.
It was 10 years ago that Georgia suffered a home loss to Auburn that led to one of the ugliest scenes I can remember at Sanford Stadium. The damage done by that loss shook the faith of the fans in a coach who was less than two years removed from a top 10 finish and a win over Florida. That coach wouldn’t last but another season at Georgia. You might argue that Richt is on much stronger ground now than Donnan was at midseason in 1999, and you’d be right. But does that ground seem as firm as it did as recently as a month ago?
Georgia fans drew praise in 2008 for sticking by the team at halftime and beyond during the loss to Alabama. For those of us who remember the 1999 Auburn game it was a remarkable contrast. At the same time there was an implicit caution not to go to the well of good will too soon and too often. Blutarsky talks a bit about that this morning. Richt standing on his record is certainly valid, but doing so "indicates that he’s already spent some of that good will…banked…as a result of his track record." When it comes to the support of the home fans, much of that good will was spent against Alabama and Georgia Tech last season, and not much has been put back into the till since.
The optimist in me doesn’t want to consider the fallout from another blowout loss at home. It was, in hindsight, fortunate that the Tennessee game was on the road. I’m not anticipating a loss, blowout or otherwise, to Auburn, but we do have to concede concerns going up against an offense that has looked great at times this year against a defense that hasn’t. A loss to Auburn isn’t a pleasant thing to consider – not only would it be a loss to Auburn, but I really do worry about the reaction of the crowd on a national broadcast. Fans are coming into the game with arms crossed, eyebrows raised, and in a foul temperament. It won’t take much to set them off. I hope we never find out.
Beating Auburn won’t salvage the season or prevent the uncomfortable post-season evaluations that must occur. A win sets up the possibilities of a 5-1 home record, a good-but-not-great 5-3 SEC record, and a 3-game winning streak going into Atlanta. That might seem like small potatoes (especially with the big game left to finish the season), but it would be an indication of a team that hasn’t given up on the season and is determined to finish it out.