Mitchell: The Underachieving Georgia Bulldogs
In the past six college football seasons, Georgia has faced 17 SEC teams that finished the season above .500 in conference play, and won only four times. Given all the talent and resources in Athens, why?
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
By nearly every account, Georgia Head Coach Mark Richt is twice the man most of us will ever be. He manages a stressful career with grace. He volunteers what little free time he has to many charitable endeavors, and shares his income with his community. There are fewer people that do more for the city of Athens and the state of Georgia than Mark and Katharyn Richt.
These are simple facts … all far more important than a game. Even the multi-million dollar business of college football.
For this, as well as his success during the first half of his career, Richt is to be admired. I admire him.
However, here's another fact: there is no denying that Georgia football has been far from consistent for the better part of a decade. This is a program whose limited success of late has come not due to its own skill, but rather the failings of others facing more challenging obstacles.
To appreciate the gravity of this underachievement and get to the "why" behind it, we first need to delve into the who, what, when and how.
The Georgia Bulldogs finished the 2007 regular season 11-2, with many suggesting they had earned a share of the national title. But how inflated was that argument?
Georgia played four teams that finished the season in the Top 25, the best of them being Tennessee. The 10-4 Vols finished 12 in the nation … and embarrassed the Dawgs by three touchdowns, 35-14.
That was followed by wins against SEC foes Florida and Auburn … 16 & 14, respectively, in the final rankings. However, both squads barely cracked .500 in conference play. Georgia's other Top 25 opponent was a grossly overrated Hawaii team, which plummeted in the final poll after their Sugar Bowl thrashing.
Indeed, even Georgia's 2007 opening game foe, Oklahoma State, proved to be a paper tiger. The Pokes finished 4-4 in conference play, 7-6 overall … far outside the Top 25.
2008 began with tremendous promise. Georgia stood atop both the Coaches and AP Poll with a roster that boasted an embarrassment of riches and key returning starters, coming on the heels of the overhyped 2007 campaign, and with a coach who spent much of the summer setting the highest of expectations.
Matthew Stafford returned at quarterback. One of only a handful of modern-era Bulldogs to start as a true freshman, Stafford would become the first player selected in the NFL draft following the season.
Beside him in the backfield was Knowshon Moreno, who finished 2008 as a first-team All-SEC player for the second consecutive year.
Indeed, six players off that 2008 team would go on to be selected in the next NFL draft … all but one in the first three rounds. They were followed by at least 11 more who also played in 2008, for an impressive total of 17.
Yet the season would prove to be a major disappointment. UGA played just three regular season games against teams that finished the season in the Top 25 (Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech), and lost all three – surrendering a still jaw-dropping 135 points in the process.
Indeed, Richt's next signature SEC victory wouldn't come until October 27, 2012 – a sloppy 17-9 win over the Gators. That game featured Florida's young quarterback Jeff Driskel, who accounted for four of the Gators' six turnovers. Driskel actually fumbled twice on Florida's three-play opening drive.
4 years, 11 months and 17 days between signature SEC wins … all the way back to November 10, 2007, a Georgia victory between the hedges in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry.
Actually, it's more damning than that. From that Auburn game in 2007 until Vanderbilt in 2012, Georgia did not beat a single SEC team that merely finished conference play above .500. Not one. A string of 35 conference games spanning nearly five years.
2009 and 2010 are best left forgotten, as the Bulldogs failed to surpass .500 in conference play both seasons. Train wrecks that culminated in the Liberty Bowl humiliation to the University of Central Florida.
In 2011, the Bulldogs may have had 10 wins, but they went 0-4 against teams that finished the year in the Top 25.
As we wrote that preseason when predicting Georgia would win the East, any team can have success in a single year, which often has more to do with scheduling, rosters, injuries and luck as intelligent coaching. It doesn't mean the foundation is solid.
Georgia's best season since 2005 may have been 2012, when the Dawgs finished with another double digit winning season and saved their best game for the conference final versus the Crimson Tide. Yet once again, UGA failed to have a winning record versus SEC teams over .500 in conference play.
Moreover, like 2011, many believe the Bulldogs backed into the East crown given a favorable schedule, particularly after being down to South Carolina 35-0 until a face-saving touchdown in the final seconds. South Carolina … who for the second straight year beat UGA, yet once again drew the short (scheduling) straw, this time with an all-expenses paid trip Baton Rouge and a place they call Death Valley.
Last season may have been Richt's best pure coaching effort of the past seven years, as he held his tattered program together despite injuries and a roster made thin by defections and expulsions.
Some of Richt's detractors point to his inability to lock up the state of Georgia – to keep home-grown talent playing in Athens.
To be sure, nearly 20 Georgia natives were selected in the 2014 NFL draft, and only one of them signed with the Dawgs. That player? Zach Mettenberger – who finished his career as an LSU Tiger.
But this is a red herring.
In the past ten years, Richt has recruited a frightening amount of talent. It's certainly subjective, but according to the aggregator 247Sports, during the past decade Richt landed nine top ten recruiting classes, and in the one year he missed, the Dawgs finished 12. His average class over that ten year stretch was eighth best in the nation.
Yet for whatever reason, since winning the SEC title in 2005, Coach Richt has struggled to get this talent to consistently perform on the field … let alone stay on campus. And even 2005 finished with a sour taste following the upset Sugar Bowl loss to Rich Rodriguez's West Virginia Mountaineers.
At this point your guess is as good as anyone's. An inability to select and maintain a top shelf staff. Recruiting players who for a number of reasons have a higher turnover rate than most schools. A failure to get his players adequately prepared/focused. A softer, player-friendly coaching style, ala Carroll or Johnson, Erickson or Meyer … all of whom won championships, but whose short-timer, laissez-faire style lost its impact/control over time.
Regardless, the fact remains that Georgia has struggled to consistently win important games for too long. In the past six college football seasons, Georgia has faced 17 SEC teams that finished the season above .500 in conference play, and won only four times. Many players and coaches have come and gone over this period … the one major constant has been Richt.
How long does this continue? How long does a good man get to keep taking shots at the brass ring?
Georgia is a premium brand – for the sport in general, but especially for our conference. When you travel the country, you see Georgia's proud "G" logo everywhere next to Alabama's "A", the Yankees "NY", LA's cursive "Lakers", and the Domers' "ND". Like Texas and USC, Georgia has a proud tradition, and its fans deserve more than average.
At day's end, it's up to Richt and the Georgia administration/fan base. If you're comfortable with a proud program that continues to back into its championships, only to lose them… If you're comfortable with a woeful record against the conference's better teams… If you're comfortable with a roster that turns over more rapidly and consistently than a Craig Kimbrel fastball…
If you're comfortable with always being the bridesmaid and never the bride… then stay the course. Because there's more than enough of a track record now.
Russ Mitchell is the Lead SEC Columnist for CFN and Campus Insiders. Follow him @russmitchellcfb and listen to him each week on the SEC14.com Smackcast!, powered by Campus Insiders