The Georgia Bulldogs have fallen.
Can they get back up?
Are things as bad as they seem?
First consider just how far the Dogs have fallen. They are underdogs this Saturday to Mississippi State.
Proud owners of one SEC championship — which was garnered way back in 1941. Winner of 23 games over the past five seasons. They did win last year’s Egg Bowl, a 41-27 thrashing of Ole Miss, which ended coach Dan Mullen’s inaugural season with a 5-7 record (3-5 in the SEC).
Picked to finish dead last in the SEC West this year by no less an authority than The Sporting News. Loser of nine straight games to Georgia, dating back to 1974.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely no animosity toward the Starkville Bulldogs.
In fact, one of the most pleasant road trips I’ve ever taken was a visit to lovely Scott Field in 1982. And over the years, though inevitably outmanned, Mississippi State has always competed hard.
But their football tradition cannot compare with that of the Athens Bulldogs.
So when Georgia’s named an underdog to Mississippi State, it comes as a complete shock to the systems of the Georgia faithful. But that’s where things stand.
Head coach Mark Richt agrees. “We got better today,” he said in his opening remarks after Georgia’s loss to Arkansas Saturday.
So that’s how it is now in Athens. We don’t measure wins and losses. We calibrate getting better. The way rebuilding programs do.
But there’s more. “It’s not like we’ve played two soft teams,” Richt continued. “Arkansas is very good. They got the job done, and we didn’t. We made a lot of progress, but we’ve got to finish.”
Whoa. Once upon a very short time ago, Georgia was a very good team. Georgia used to get the job done, and their opponents didn’t.
Once upon a time, Richt’s teams always finished their comebacks. They’ve completed no fewer than 18 fourth quarter comebacks during his nine-year tenure.
Which reminds us that Richt, the dean of SEC coaches, is to a certain extent a victim of his own success. He’s one of seven coaches to win two SEC titles in his first five years. One of five to post four straight 10-win seasons. He has the third best winning percentage among active coaches.
So, really, Georgia shouldn’t be playing at Mississippi State’s level.
The fear felt by Georgia fans, that once the Dogs fall they’ll be down for a while, is real and tangible, and goes back decades, generations.
Coach Wally Butts won three SEC championships in the 40s, but languished throughout most of the 50s. Vince Dooley’s early 80s dynasty fell off slightly, as each of his last five teams lost at least three games.
Once Ray Goff finished taking the program down another notch or two, the rebuilding job was more formidable than Jim Donnan could master.
Once you fall, it’s hard to get back up. Once you lose that aura of invincibility, that feeling of walking on the field knowing you’re going to win, it takes a stretch of seasons like Richt reeled off from 2002 through 2008 to recapture that feeling.
The only Richt teams to lose more than three games in a season have been ones where he was breaking in a new quarterback: David Greene in 2001, Matthew Stafford in 2006, and Joe Cox last year.
So, expectations for a championship season in 2010, with freshman Aaron Murray at quarterback, were clearly unrealistic.
But opening with SEC losses to South Carolina and Arkansas doubtless made the situation look darker than it is. Those losses appear to kick Georgia out of the SEC penthouse.
Certainly A. J. Green would have been a nice, imposing security blanket for Murray during his SEC baptism. We might have seen less hesitation on Murray’s part.
And while Georgia has myriad talented receivers, none have Green’s presence, or demand the defense’s attention.
Thus, the talented Georgia line faces defensive fronts daring Murray to beat them. And this is irksome for two reasons. The Other Running Back has been missing all season, and coordinator Mike Bobo rarely makes a full commitment to the running game.
Based upon how Richt’s other quarterbacks have developed, I’m inclined to believe that Georgia’s offense will improve dramatically, and in short order.
Richt thinks so, too. “If we stick together, which I believe we will, and keep working, we’ll improve as we go,” he said Saturday.
The defense? Here we confront an entirely new scheme, and an unknown quantity in new coordinator Todd Grantham.
It may take a while for the Dogs to be able to play in this defense without having to think so much — and think incorrectly. And it may require a mountainous nose tackle as well.
But the new defense encountered two of the SEC’s most creative offensive masterminds in its first two games, and it’s still an improvement over Willie’s Sieve.
And if you ever hear Grantham on the sideline, or at practice, or in the locker room before a game, you get the feeling that he’s up to the task of building a championship defense.
September will be the longest month of this season. But no long down cycle awaits. We’ve seen the worst of these Dogs.