It turns out Kirby Smart isn’t a miracle worker, but he and his new staff are damn fine recruiters. Given about six weeks with which to recruit, they turned in a top ten class that rates as the best in the SEC East. It was one of the most outstanding results for a first-year coach, and that Smart in this short time pulled off a class every bit as strong as the typical Richt class gives us a reason to expect even more from a full recruiting cycle in 2017.
Credit is due to the previous staff – most of the prospects signed in this class were either commitments or had strong interest in Georgia due to the efforts of those coaches. Smart and the new coaches did an excellent job maintaining and strengthening those relationships.
That said, there was some tweaking of the class by the new staff. They were able to pull off a few flips. They also won a few head-to-head battles for some uncommitted prospects. At the same time, Georgia lost a handful of commitments who might’ve been encouraged – directly or indirectly – to look elsewhere.
The strength of the class is clearly the defensive line. Carter, Clark, Manac, Marshall, and Rochester are all big-time prospects who should, along with returning players, give Georgia nice depth up front. Manac might end up as more of a DE/OLB like Jordan Jenkins, but the defense could use depth there too.
Aside from the defensive line, the class is also noteworthy for its blue chips. 13 out of 20 signees were rated 4* or better by Rivals and were among ESPN’s nationwide top 300 prospects. The lone 2* signee was a punter selected to the U.S. Army All-American game. History tells us not everyone will pan out, but there aren’t many spot-fillers in this class.
If there was a disappointment with the class, it’s the offensive line. Georgia’s three line signees are all strong prospects – this is a quantity issue. Smart addressed that shortcoming and admitted that the offensive line and tackle position specifically would be an emphasis in 2017.
While the staff works on the numbers, we’re interested to see what Pittman can do with the linemen already on campus. Not to build the man up too much, but his reputation suggests that there should be improvement just from better coaching.
One of the consequences from the attrition in the 2013 class is that there won’t be a ton of seniors in 2016. Smart wasn’t going to fill up the roster with reaches in his first signing class and have that limit what he could do in his 2017 class.
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With Signing Day upon us, it will soon be time to start talking about how all of these new pieces will fit into the program. The larger trend – and our own 2015 experience – is for more and more true freshmen to see playing time. The combination of incoming talent and opportunities on the depth chart lead you to think that the trend will continue at Georgia in 2016.
Quarterback is one position where opportunity and talent have fans looking to a newcomer. Now that Jacob Eason has enrolled, the next question seems to be when, not if, he becomes the starter. There’s been some idle offseason talk on the radio and message boards about the best way to proceed – do you throw him to the wolves right away, or do we see a gradual transition (with the obligatory mention of 2006)?
At the same time, we’re all watching the recovery and rehab of Nick Chubb. While we have no indication that the process is anything but on-schedule, Georgia’s coaches might face a similar decision: even if cleared to play, do you ease Chubb back in with someone like Michel getting the bulk of the carries, or is Chubb the workhorse out of the gate?
Whatever your own thoughts on those topics, I think most of us would admit that there is a nonzero chance that Georgia begins 2016 without Eason and Chubb in the starting lineup.
How does that possibility affect your outlook for 2016? If you saw a backfield of Lambert and Michel trot out against UNC, would your expectations change? What if September – with UNC and two SEC road games – came and went before Eason and Chubb were starters?
The Chubb situation seems to be straightforward: if he’s physically able, he’ll be in there. That doesn’t just mean that the knee is sound – he’ll also be playing catch-up with conditioning. It could be, say, the Ole Miss game before he’s able to carry the load of 20+ carries. Knee injuries are unpredictable, and the range of possibilities is everything from a full recovery to the dreaded scenario where he never regains that highest level of performance.
Eason’s path to the starting job could be a little less linear. Fans expect it’s sooner than later. The process will play itself out in spring and summer. Coaches will use the term “best chance to win.” All quarterbacks – Eason, Lambert, and, yes, Ramsey too – will have a chance to impress the new staff.
Why might the coaches hold Eason back? Start with Greyson Lambert throwing just two interceptions in 2015.
If Brian Schottenheimer deserves credit for one thing, it’s this: Lambert went from a 10/11 TD/INT ratio at Virginia to a 12/2 ratio at Georgia. That improvement wasn’t accidental. Now it’s true that this improvement came at the cost of severely limiting the passing offense – Lambert wasn’t asked to make Aaron Murray’s throws, and the passing game wasn’t nearly as productive. He also threw a few suspect passes that would’ve/should’ve/could’ve been picked off, but they weren’t.
Given a good defense, the coaches chose and eventually settled on the quarterback who didn’t make the back-breaking mistake. It wasn’t enough to get Georgia a championship, but it did get them to 10 wins. That approach carried the team through the turmoil of the second half of the season and led to five straight wins to close out 2015.
So if you’re Kirby Smart coming over from the ultimate game-management program, you’re conditioned to appreciate a quarterback who won’t put your defense in a tight spot. (You also appreciate championships and quarterbacks who can make plays.) That’s part of the decision: if you think you can navigate Georgia’s tough early schedule by minimizing mistakes (at the expense of production) in the passing game and get by following the 2015 model, Eason might not be the best choice. If, though, you anticipate that the offense is going to have to win a couple of these games, you might risk the inexperienced gunslinger.
Chubb’s availability could also factor into the quarterback decision. With Chubb, the running game could be the focus of a fairly productive offense. Without Chubb, Michel and Douglas are the only returning backs with experience. There will also be some changes on the line. Michel proved himself to be a capable 1,000-yard back, but the offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic as it was when Michel’s versatility was on display in the first month of the season. Without Chubb and a deep pool of backs, you might need to ask for more from the passing game right away and accept the risks that come with it.
We often see teams change over the course of a season. Sometimes (2013) it’s for the worse as injuries or off-field incidents cut short a promising season. Other times (2007) teams find themselves and make a run late in the season. Unless the Dawgs get fairly lucky and both of these playmakers are ready to go on September 3rd, the identity of the 2016 team could change in a big way. How late (or early) in the season that transition occurs and how well the team and coaches manage it will have a lot to say about how we remember Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach.
The gimmicks get the headlines, but beneath the surface there is real work being done. Smart and his assistants are blanketing their top prospects and doing it in a very public way. Any new coach is in a tough spot – you have little more than a month to either establish or repair relationships with prospects that other programs and coaches might’ve cultivated for years. Georgia might or might not pull some big names on Signing Day, but it won’t be for lack of effort.
One thing to keep in mind though is that the tireless recruiting going on now just brings Georgia up to par. Within the past week we’ve seen Notre Dame park a semi truck in front of a prospects house. We’ve seen Nick Saban dancing. We’ve seen Michigan enlist Ric Flair – Florida fan – for some Signing Day wooooing. Again, the stunts aren’t really the point. It’s that other top programs and staffs have also been pulling out the stops, working around the clock, and sending some high profile coaches into the same living rooms. There’s not much new under the sun – Lane Kiffin was doing the helicopter thing six years ago.
On Sunday at a reception, retired Georgia basketball coach Andy Landers talked about the recruiting landscape. He pointed around Georgia’s state-of-the-art practice facility. Everyone has one of these now, he explained. Every school subscribes to the same recruiting scouting services to identify talent. Doing these things just gets you in the game, and it’s up to you to stand out among a crowded and competitive field.
It might be enough that Georgia is now in the ballpark with the rest of these programs in terms of effort and resources. It might be real progress just that Georgia is willing to spend on what might seem like extravagances in the name of recruiting. Georgia doesn’t get a particular edge relative to the elite programs, but it does allow Smart to make these recruiting battles competitive. The helicopters, the planes, the bulldogs, and all of the gimmicks open the door for Smart and its staff to get to what really matters: contact with their top prospects and the ability to discuss Georgia and the opportunities it offers.
2017 LB prospect Jaden Hunter committed to Georgia on Monday. That’s big in a football sense – he’s a 4* linebacker who chose Georgia over a long list of schools that included Alabama, Clemson, and FSU. It’s a significant commitment at a deeper level also. Hunter’s parents – Brandi Decker Hunter and the late Brice Hunter were both Bulldog standouts for their respective sports. Brice’s tragic death over ten years ago left Brandi as a single mother of three and Jaden without a father. A group of Brice’s teammates made it a point to be the male role models in Jaden’s life, and it was this strong bond with the Georgia program that led Hunter to commit as a tribute to his father.
The folks at Rivals put together a pair of incredible videos for this occasion. First is the commitment itself. That’s impressive enough, but the second video is nearly as good. Anyone who followed the program in the 1990s will be blown away by the collection of former players who stepped up in Jaden’s life and who explain in this video what Brice Hunter and Jaden mean to them. Give both videos a watch – you won’t find many commitments this well done, and kudos to the Rivals staff for working with the family to produce these videos.
Georgia’s men’s and women’s basketball teams have each played three conference games, and the teams have a combined one win between them.
For the men it’s been a story of home and away. The Dawgs looked out of their element in the conference opener at Florida, and Ole Miss used the frenzied crowd of a new arena to pull off a mild upset. Georgia’s lone home game was a relatively easy dispatching of Missouri. Though there were some defensive lapses, Georgia’s shooting has let them down on the road. The Dawgs shot 35.6% at Florida, improved to 54.7% at home against Missouri, and dropped back to 36.2% at Mississippi. If there’s been one consistent good sign, it’s the play of Yante Maten inside. Freshman Derek Ogbeide has started to contribute also and should see his minutes increase.
Georgia’s next chance at a road win isn’t until next week at Missouri, and it’s definitely one Georgia should be expected to handle. The men enjoy two straight at home, and Saturday’s game against #21 Texas A&M will be an important opportunity for a quality win. It’s critical that Georgia holds serve at home against Tennessee and A&M. After this week’s homestand, the Dawgs will play three of four on the road including difficult trips to LSU and Baylor.
It’s been even tougher going for the women. The Lady Dogs began the season 12-1 in nonconference play and were on the cusp of the top 25. The SEC schedule hasn’t been kind: Georgia’s first three conference opponents were ranked, and the Lady Dogs weren’t able to notch any upsets. They came closest in Thursday’s loss to Missouri: Georgia fought back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take a 5-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the visitors closed the game on a run of their own.
The woes for Joni Taylor’s team are familiar ones. Georgia hasn’t had much from transition against SEC opponents and has had to get points from the halfcourt offense. That isn’t and wasn’t expected to be a strength of the team. When the defense leads to offense, as in the third quarter comeback against Missouri, the team shows signs of life. But that productive quarter was combined with first and fourth quarters in which Georgia bogged down in the halfcourt and scored 6 and 8 points.
Taylor’s players continue to fight, and they clawed back to make the Kentucky loss a competitive one. Their next attempt to get an SEC win will be a road trip to face a Florida team that has beaten FSU and Tennessee to earn a spot in the top 25. It would definitely be a quality win, but at this point any victory is important.
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Tracy Rocker didn’t go into specifics, but he did confirm that there was something to all of those rumors flying around late in the season:
When you play a game like this and you have — I’ll call it — a bit of a mutiny; well, it IS mutiny — it’s important that you bring the kids together, and I thought it was important we did that.
It was obvious that there was dysfunction on the coaching staff. You don’t put out a tweet like this when everything is honky dory. Rocker’s comments help us understand why the status of a successful defensive coordinator was even in question. It’s also reasonable to conclude that this dysfunction was used against Mark Richt as justification for the coaching change.
Many of us would just rather forget the 2015 season and move on. There won’t be many highlight DVDs sold for this season. I’d like to remember it for what the players accomplished despite whatever was going on among the staff. Yes Rocker, McClendon, and the remaining interim coaches deserve credit for “bringing the kids together,” but it was those players who kept it together and closed the season with five straight wins while their coaching staff was imploding around them. The 10 wins and 40 wins for the seniors meant something to them even as fans and coaches chose to close the book on a season that went south fast. We thought that the motivation for the bowl would have to come from within, but it turns out that much of the second half of the season was played under those conditions. The guys paid six figures were able to plan their escape routes and soft landings as they squabbled, but the players with no choice but to stick it out did just that. They should be proud of that, and we should be proud of them for it.
While the rest of the program is rebuilt around them, the remaining Georgia players have one more game to play. It’s a meeting of two tradition-rich programs, and those of us old enough still have some old Sugar Bowl scores to settle.
It’s become the mission of any bowl preview: figure out which team wants to be there and which has already cashed in. There’s no formula to follow and easy to get wrong – how many people expected Georgia to come out fired up last year after a loss to Tech and Richt rumored to be on the way out? Both Georgia and Penn State have gone through some changes since the end of the season, and I’m not going to guess which will have more to play for. But if Georgia is going to find motivation to play well in this game, it’s most likely going to have to come from within. Their new coaches aren’t in place yet. Their old coaches have largely scattered. Fans have been slow to buy tickets, and many have already moved on to the Smart era.
So it’s pretty much down to the guys suiting up. There are some concrete goals – a 10-win season and 40 wins for the seniors. Those will get the team so far, but the motivation that matters will have been what got the team through bowl practices. Are they prepared, on the same page, and willing to play for each other? If so, they’ll be fine.
James Franklin will be on the other sideline. He was annoying while at Vanderbilt if only because he made the games (in Nashville, at least) more competitive. His teams fought back several times against Georgia, and that’s a credit to Franklin for getting that response at a program used to losing. I have no doubt that we’ll see an opponent that continues to compete even if Georgia proves to be the better team. The Dawgs can’t sit on a lead.
One thing we also saw a lot of from Franklin’s Vanderbilt teams was trick plays, particularly on special teams. We’ve seen onside kicks, fake field goals, and the center-eligible fake punt. Offense could be at a premium in this game, and points or just sustained possession from a trick play could prove decisive.
Line play is a key in most games, and it will be especially important in a game that features excellent pass rushing by both teams. Georgia seems to have the slight edge – the Bulldog offensive line has been inconsistent but is capable of a good game. There are two different challenges. First, can the Georgia offensive line play to form against Carl Nassib and his teammates? Penn State has racked up 44 sacks, but Georgia has allowed only 13. Which unit will flinch? The other challenge is for Georgia’s defense. Penn State’s offensive line has been a weakness all season, but can Georgia’s defensive front take advantage? This is a big opportunity for Jenkins and Floyd to leave a very positive impression before they head to the next level.
With such good pass rushes, the offenses will do their best to avoid obvious passing situations. Georgia’s running game is working with some good news and bad news: Michel and Marshall will be as healthy as they’ve been in a while. But Douglas and Hicks are out for the game. The Dawgs will have to dig deep at both tailback and fullback. We might even see the debut of A.J. Turman. Hopefully Georgia’s bowl coaches will continue the use of McKenzie, Godwin, and other skill players in the running game.
Penn State has found a tailback in true freshman Saquon Barkley. Barkley has posted over 1,000 yards and gone for over 100 in five games behind that suspect offensive line. Three of those five 100-yard performances came against ranked opponents: Ohio State, Michigan State, and Northwestern. Like Georgia, they’ve struggled to establish much depth behind their lead rusher.
If you thought Georgia was bad on third down (and they’ve been), Penn State has been worse. Only two FBS schools have a worse success rate on third down. Both teams will place an emphasis on winning early downs and then turning their dominant pass rushes loose against an opposing offense that ranks among the bottom ten on third down.
The formula that’s allowed Georgia to finish the regular season 5-1 won’t change much for this game despite whatever wrinkles have been installed during bowl practice. Run, manage, defend. The Dawgs will have to sustain drives on the ground against a fantastic front seven. Both teams are fairly even in turnover margin – a swing either way would help a struggling offense as would any big special teams plays. The Florida game is a good reminder of how fast things can go south for Georgia’s formula with a few miscues. Of course any team wants to play with the lead, but it’s especially important for these two teams that they not have to play from behind and abandon the run.
Georgia’s first priority is to make sure strengths remain strengths. That begins with the outside linebackers and up front where they should have a relative advantage over Penn State’s offensive line. If Georgia’s pass rush takes the day off, the Penn State quarterback is more than good enough to make plays. But if the Dawgs show up on defense and take advantage of a struggling Penn State offense, the Dawgs should have the upper hand.
“There’s nothing more that’s going to help me at the University of Georgia than winning a national title at the University of Alabama.”
I understand and respect Smart’s decision to stay on through the playoffs, but I can think of a few things off the top of my head besides a couple of Alabama wins that Georgia’s head coach could do which would be more beneficial to Georgia.
It’s typical for some chaos during a coaching transition, but Georgia has some special circumstances making this transition that much more hectic. Their new coach is still with his old team. The old coach immediately took a new job. New assistants have been named but won’t coach in the bowl game. We’re left with a hodgepodge crew of lame duck coaches and staffers who will be conducting bowl practices, and many of them will be coaching with their own futures uncertain.
The table below compares the three staffs – 2015, bowl, and 2016. We’ll scratch through a 2015 name when it’s confirmed that he’s no longer a part of the program. We’ll add to the 2016 list when official announcements are made.
Brian Schottenheimer (+QB)
John Lilly (+TE)
Jim Chaney (+QB)
Bryan McClendon (WR)
Thomas Brown (RB)
John Lilly (TE)
Rob Sale (OL)
Thomas Brown (RB)
Rob Sale (OL)
Steve Shimko (QB)
Olten Downs (WR)
Sam Pittman (OL)
Dell McGee (RB)
James Coley (WR)
Shane Beamer (TE/ST)
Jeremy Pruitt (+DB)
Kevin Sherrer (+ILB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Mike Ekeler (ILB)
Kevin Sherrer (OLB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Sam Petitto (DB)
Courtney Coard (OLB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Glenn Schumann (TBD)
Kevin Sherrer (TBD)
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He’s been Georgia’s quarterback of the future for about a year and a half now, and Jacob Eason reaffirmed on Tuesday that he’ll still enroll at Georgia in just a few short weeks. It’s pretty amazing that a top prospect from the opposite side of the country would stick through two coordinator/position coach changes and even a head coaching change. That speaks to many things, but it’s a special feather in the cap of Mike Bobo and Mark Richt to have built such a solid foundation in recruiting Eason that it could survive these events. They didn’t just sell Eason on themselves; it was the whole package – the school, the town, the current players, and even the other prospects considering Georgia.
It also speaks to Eason’s levelheadedness. He didn’t jump ship when Richt left or when the offense struggled in 2015. Many fans assumed that Eason wouldn’t stick through the Bobo departure and certainly not through the head coaching change. Yes, he considered his options. That was the prudent thing to do – it would have been foolish not to have had a plan B if Georgia went a different direction with its coaching and scheme. He covered his bases, gave Smart and Chaney an opportunity to make their case, enjoyed a visit with future and prospective teammates, and concluded that “it all got cleared up.”
And so he’ll enroll for spring semester and enter the competition at quarterback. I expect most fans will find spring practice both fascinating and frustrating. All eyes will be on Eason, but I’d be surprised if a 2016 starter emerges.
Then there’s the 2016 season itself. Most of us expect Eason to emerge as the starter, but when? Eason is fabulously gifted, but he’ll have plenty of bad habits to break and a much more sophisticated offense to learn. Even Zeier and Stafford – two quarterbacks similarly heralded – didn’t claim the job exclusively until October of their respective freshman seasons. Smart, with the experienced help of Chaney, will have to manage the transition while avoiding the distraction of a quarterback controversy. Public pressure to play Eason will begin as soon as Eason takes the practice field.
Ideally you’d want a schedule that allowed Eason to ease into the role. 2015 would have been a best case – two easier SEC opponents and two light nonconference games. That’s not the case in 2016 – Georgia starts the season against an ascendant UNC program and will play two SEC road games in September. The Dawgs will need a poised and capable quarterback right from the opener. Do you let Eason take his lumps with the hope that he’ll have figured things out in time for the trip to Oxford?
There have been a few recent developments that might affect Georgia’s quarterback roster. First, Oklahoma reserve Trevor Knight will be a graduate transfer and is considering Georgia. Knight’s track record might look a little too similar to that of Greyson Lambert: former starter, gave way to another quarterback, graduate transfer. Knight was more accomplished as a starter than Lambert though, and he might be a good player to have on the depth chart.
The second development is one reported earlier this week by UGASports.com($). With Brian Schottenheimer no longer a part of the program, Brice Ramsey might have a renewed interest in playing quarterback and could even play in the bowl game. It’s not unheard of for coaching changes to breathe new life into stagnant careers, and a player expected to start the 2015 season might jump at the chance for a fresh start.
The possibility is there that Eason could have a good enough spring and camp that the coaches throw him right into the fire against the Tar Heels. A more likely outcome is that someone else starts the season – be it Ramsey, Knight, or, yes, Lambert. Smart’s experience suggests that he’ll place an emphasis on ball control and a lack of mistakes, and that might not be the strengths of a true freshman. With a capable set of running backs and a good group of defenders returning, coaches will have to consider what attributes at the quarterback position give the team the best chance to win.
It was an impressive first press conference. He’ll have to get right to work assembling a staff and a recruiting class, but he’ll remain at Alabama through the playoffs. As with all new hires, time will tell whether Smart was a good choice, but it’s clear that those who set these wheels in motion after the Florida game got the guy they wanted. Now the hard part begins…
Georgia was selected for the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly Gator Bowl) in Jacksonville. The game will be on Saturday January 2nd at noon with ESPN providing the broadcast. Bryan McClendon will lead the Dawgs into the postseason as the interim head coach. This is the first meeting between these storied programs since the 1983 Sugar Bowl where Penn State knocked off #1 Georgia 27-23 to deny the Dawgs and Herschel Walker the 1982 national championship. Dawg fans of a more recent vintage will recognize Penn State coach James Franklin whose Vanderbilt team upset Georgia in 2013 in Franklin’s final season in Nashville. If you need a score to settle, pick 1983 or 2013 – whatever works for you.
Penn State finished the regular season 7-5. The Nittany Lions have two wins over bowl teams – Indiana and San Diego State. Georgia’s win over Auburn was their only victory over a bowl team. After a 7-2 start PSU lost their final three games against a back-loaded Big 10 schedule.
Both teams will be going through transitions. Georgia of course will play without their 2015 head coach and both coordinators. Penn State dismissed their offensive coordinator after a disappointing season despite having NFL prospect Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Freshman tailback Saquon Barkley has been the most consistent element of the offense. Still, the PSU offense has struggled due to a weak offensive line that’s allowed a glut of sacks and negative plays.
Ordinarily we’d relish the thought of Georgia’s pass rush going against a paper-thin offensive line and a pro-style quarterback who had been sacked 39 times in 2015. If Georgia’s seniors and NFL-bound juniors haven’t mentally checked out, this could be one nice last showcase for someone like Floyd or Jenkins. That’s a big if though – some stars mentally collecting NFL checks playing uninspired ball without their beloved coordinator could do more harm than good. Hopefully they’ll make the most of one final live audition for the scouts.
As good as Georgia’s pass rush could be, Penn State leads the nation in sacks with 44. Senior DE Carl Nassib is the Big 10’s defensive player of the year. He’s been limited down the stretch, but it’s expected that he will play in the bowl. Georgia looks to put up a little more resistance, allowing just 13 sacks in 2015. If Georgia’s seniors on the offensive line want a taste of what they’ll face at the next level, they’ll be going up against some top NFL talent on the Penn State defensive front.
So both teams feature stingy defenses and some big questions on offense. Predictions of a low-scoring game make sense. Turnovers, special teams plays, or an explosive play by a healthy Michel, Mitchell, or McKenzie could put Georgia over the top in a close game.
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If there’s a lesson here, it’s just business. Once Mark Richt was fired on Sunday, he was under no obligation to Georgia fans or even Georgia’s players. I don’t begrudge him (and definitely don’t blame him for) jumping at an opportunity to get away from the awkward situation that was on full display in Monday’s press conference.
Part of me is glad that Richt is taking the Miami job. It would have been nice to have had him around the program to continue his developmental and networking programs, but a figure that beloved and successful would have cast a long shadow. It was similar with having Vince Dooley around in the 1990s, but at least Dooley was the athletic director with the accepted chain of command that comes with the AD position and – more importantly – had left coaching more or less on his own terms.
I understand that it takes some time to process change, and the great man Richt is makes it even more difficult. But he has moved on, and so should we. If he hasn’t already, he’ll soon be on the phone to prospects to build Miami’s recruiting class. When that happens, he becomes the competition – perhaps not to the extent he’ll be going up against Florida and FSU and other ACC programs, but Miami and Georgia have frequently been involved in recruiting battles. Georgia has had some good results bringing players out of South Florida, and Richt will be attempting to lock down that area.
We wish him well and will always respect him and possibly even pull for him (especially against Tech!), but those well-wishes have to stop where his interests conflict with ours – and they will. I was and will remain a fan of Richt, but I’m a Georgia fan first, and Mark Richt no longer represents our program.
I wasn’t in favor of dismissing Mark Richt. I recognized that the investment in the program at the end of the 2014 season was going to take some time to begin to pay off, and I believed that Richt had earned the right to coach through that period.
The past few weeks have been a heavy case of deja vu. I remember standing in the parking lot tailgating for the Belk Bowl and the rampant rumors of retirement and whether the bowl game was a referendum on Richt dominated the conversation. With that game in hand, it looked as if Richt had “won.” The program received an infusion of staffers, reorganized the strength program, and it went out and spent money on an offensive coordinator – money that it oddly wasn’t willing to offer outgoing coordinator Mike Bobo. Even if these investments were made grudgingly after a semi-public showdown between Richt (with Pruitt as a proxy) and the administration, it still looked as if Richt had bought himself some time.
Yet less than a year later, here we are again. The program again stumbled in October, but by winning out (even if by the narrowest of margins), it looked as if Richt had steadied the ship. But there was still unrest under the surface. For different reasons, neither coordinator was on solid ground. The horrible experiment and gameplan for Florida with the division title on the line seemed to be the breaking point, and not even four straight wins to end the season could reverse a decision that had been set in motion weeks ago.
A justifiable decision
Even those of us who might disagree with the move must admit that there’s solid reasoning for it. It starts with titles, and there have only been a couple of division titles in a weak SEC East since 2005. Georgia’s performance against ranked teams – those it would consider peers – has dropped off in recent years.
Richt’s desire to become more hands-on with an offense and its quarterbacks was palpable in his Monday press conference, and it was no coincidence that some of the more mundane details that a CEO-style coach must manage were some of Richt’s weaker points as a coach. Roster management has long been an issue, and it was rare that Georgia’s best offenses synced up with its best defenses. Special teams, a strength of Richt’s first few teams, developed maddening inconsistency.
One of the more important administrative details a head coach must handle is assembling a staff. You can go all the way back to the decision to elevate Willie Martinez to defensive coordinator. You can point to the tumultuous years with Todd Grantham. Most recently Brian Schottenheimer proved to be the wrong choice to replace Mike Bobo – even those who expected Richt to stick around did so with the understanding that there would be more changes to the offense after just one failed season with Schottenheimer. A series of poor hires after 1997 brought down Jim Donnan much more quickly, and once again the composition of the staff proved to be a key factor in the downfall of another head coach.
A high bar
It isn’t just that Mark Richt had a career winning percentage of 74% or nine (and possibly ten) 10-win seasons. He’s dominated several of Georgia’s biggest rivals. His success against Tennessee and Auburn was more in line with Georgia’s historical performance against Georgia Tech, and he took the Tech series to a whole new level.
Fans might be accustomed to Georgia winning two out of three against UT and AU and nearly every Tech game now, but it would be a noticeable decline if any of these series returned to “normal.” (Though of course the new coach still has work to do to bring the Florida series back in line.)
Some of the more predictable reactions to the news have come from outside the program – the media and fans of other teams claiming to be shocked or even offended that Georgia would part ways with such a successful coach and great man. Those crazy Georgia fans with their unreasonable expectations. Let’s not pretend that many of these same pundits and reporters haven’t been pushing Mark Richt Hot Seat stories for so long and with such frequency that it became a running gag. Be surprised that Georgia finally pulled the trigger or be sad for the man, but don’t kid us that a move you’ve discussed and debated for over six years is suddenly beyond the pale.
Richt made it a point to draw from and highlight Georgia’s rich football tradition. Some of it was very visible – the Dawg Walk became the focal point of the game day experience. Other actions were less public but just as important. He brought back honorary captains to connect current players with some of Georgia’s greats. He made a big deal out of the Governor’s Cup and took that rivalry with Tech much more seriously than some fans might. Other new coaches, whether out of insecurity or ego, make a clean break to avoid being overshadowed by the past. Richt used Georgia’s legacy to help grow a championship program.
For the wins and losses, complaints and praise, it’s moments like this that defined Georgia football under Mark Richt and why many fans are having a hard time taking the news.
No one does it better than Georgia. Mark Richt made sure of that.
After over 15 years of hypotheticals, site selection, and other projects taking priority, the long-awaited facility, costing in excess of $30 million dollars, will begin to rise adjacent to the northeast side of the Butts-Mehre building after several months of site prep. The construction will disrupt parking and traffic for winter and spring sports in the area, so fans planning to attend basketball, gymnastics, baseball, tennis, and track events should be prepared. Construction is expected to continue through the 2016 football season, and even 2015 bowl practices could be affected. The football team will have to work around the construction, and practices will be relocated out to the Club Sports Complex out on Milledge after some improvements are completed there.