It’s still September, and Georgia isn’t just out of the SEC championship picture; they’re reduced to the spoiler role with 2/3 of the season remaining. Everything you and I thought about this program is wrong – even the “Richt’s teams win on the road” meme is done. Of course it’s not just a one-year problem or the 0-3 SEC start. Georgia is 2-7 in their last nine SEC games and under .500 against their division since 2006.
Back in May, former beat writer David Hale threw a few questions to the masses about Mark Richt’s future. At that moment far removed from the emotional maelstrom of midseason, it was easy to respond like this:
Will you stick by Richt if Georgia finishes 8-5 again this year, but does it with a more fundamentally sound D, a better approach to kickoffs and a duo at tailback that understands how to play the position?
I don’t outright reject the possibility of another 8-5 season. The defense will take some adjustment. We’ve seen that even Vanderbilt and Kentucky are ready to pounce on a sign of weakness. You can bet that everyone on the schedule from Mississippi State to Tennessee to Georgia Tech sees the opportunity to take their shot at a program that might be doubting itself a little. You only have to look over at Foley Field to see how the wheels can come off a season when negative momentum starts building. In fact, as Hale notes, the job the team did pulling it together at the end of last season against two big rivals is one of the underrated stories from a year ago (and is what keeps us from adding Richt’s first losing record to the ledger).
At the same time, it would be devastating to go 7/8-5 against this schedule. You’re trading Oklahoma State and LSU for lesser opponents. The home schedule is extremely favorable. Five losses against this schedule would include some very, very bad losses as well as losses to rivals that don’t sit well even in the best of years. Think about which five teams on this year’s schedule you’d accept losing to. Improvement in relatively obscure areas like kickoff coverage won’t mean much if the offensive line doesn’t live up to billing or if Georgia’s highly-rated starting quarterback isn’t ready for prime time.
Wow. And so here we are. I think most of us would be pleasantly surprised if the team can pull it together for 7-5 now. It was a big and exhausting job to regroup at the end of last year, and I have to wonder if there’s enough in the tank to do it again. The goal of just finishing with a marginally winning record is on the table now.
I’m especially concerned about this line: You only have to look over at Foley Field to see how the wheels can come off a season when negative momentum starts building. Georgia’s in what you would call the soft part of their schedule. That part of the schedule was supposed to include Mississippi State. Look back at the 2008 Auburn schedule. They had tentative success early on, but the ugly road loss to Vandy set in motion a collapse that would end with the dismissal of Tommy Tuberville. Life in the SEC is tough and competitive enough as it is; a team that’s frustrated and doubting and starting to question itself comes into any game at a major disadvantage even against what should be inferior competition.
That’s where Mark Richt and his team are this morning. Those of us out here are already talking about the big picture and what should be done at the end of the season, if not sooner. Richt has to throw a team back on the field again in six days. He wants to “look within” and reassess the program, but there’s just no time over the next two months that lends itself to much introspection. That’s a big reason why seasons like this are so easy to lose control of – you can’t afford the time away from preparation to really address the doubts and lack of confidence that end up tearing apart what you had prepared.
So you triage. Stop the bleeding. Maybe A.J. Green is the short-term tourniquet Richt needs. None of the fundamental problems with the program will be addressed any time soon, but Richt is coaching now just to have something worth saving and something capable of being saved when that time comes. He’s done it before – famously in 2007 and to a lesser extent last year – but there’s only so much first aid that can be done on a diseased patient.