October 27, 2009
Players, coaches and teams with the most at stake this weekend.
No matter what any Georgia fan might tell you, the world will continue to turn if the Bulldogs lose to Florida. It's been a long time since the Dawgs could head into the Cocktail Party (or whatever the schools' killjoy presidents insist on calling it these days) without being worried that something awful was going to happen; since Steve Spurrier took the reins at Florida in 1990, Georgia is 3-16 against the Gators, and it's rarely mattered whether UGA has had the more talented team, the higher ranking, the better coach, or anything else. The Dawgs just seem to have developed a mental complex about this game that no amount of momentum or end-zone celebrating can fix for long.
Even with that history in mind, there's a slightly different mood surrounding this year's game, and it's one that can't feel at all familiar (or pleasant) to Georgia coach Mark Richt, who enters the most critical week of the season feeling more heat than he has at any point in his Georgia tenure. And while this game alone will not be enough to get him fired -- or even put him on a meaningfully "hot seat" -- it will be used as a barometer of how the Georgia program is faring under his watch, and how prepared he is to guide that program out of its deepest trough in at least a decade.
How deep? Despite a string of A-plus recruiting classes and a defense and offensive line that returned nearly all their impact players from last season, the '09 Bulldogs sit at 4-3, already just one loss away from matching the worst number Richt has sustained in a single season. Even that wouldn't necessarily be all that embarrassing -- particularly given the rough and tumble schedule over the first two months -- if the Dawgs were doing anything particularly well at this point.
But the statistics suggest they're not: Georgia is 10th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense, 11th in pass defense (in terms of both yards allowed and efficiency), and dead last in the league in rushing yards, scoring defense and turnover margin. These various mediocrities finally converged in Knoxville three weeks ago, at which point the offense ground to a near-total halt, the defense allowed former basket case Jonathan Crompton to turn in an heroic effort, and the Dawgs fell to division rival Tennessee by nearly four touchdowns, 45-19. That was the breaking point, from whence once-muted criticisms of Richt poured in from all corners of the punditocracy -- including from Yours Truly, as a UGA fan -- and visibly engulfed the program.
In reality, though, the grumbling began in earnest nearly a year earlier, when the sixth-ranked Bulldogs went to Jacksonville still clinging to preseason national-title hopes. Instead, they were dealt a 49-10 pounding by the surging Gators, the worst blowout Richt has suffered in nearly a decade in Athens. The loss was particularly embarrassing in contrast to the 2007 game, in which the entire Georgia squad (per Richt's instructions) stormed the end zone after scoring on its opening drive and rode that swagger to a surprising two-touchdown victory, the spark of a six-game winning streak that turned a disappointing season into one of the best finishes in school history. Whatever confidence that stunt lent the Bulldogs had clearly evaporated by halftime of the '08 game, but even more worrisome, the loss kicked into motion a wholesale defensive collapse that saw Georgia giving up 30-plus points to the likes of Kentucky and Georgia Tech -- a collapse that has yet to be solved, if this year's games against South Carolina , Arkansas and Tennessee are any indication.
So the '08 Cocktail Party had loss already shattered any illusions Georgia had about seizing back equilibrium in the series. An equally lopsided blowout Saturday, though, off the sobering flop at Tennessee, would have even wider-reaching implications. If the Dawgs catch another multiple-TD beatdown, they will have been blown off the field by both of their most hated division rivals, one of which wasn't even supposed to have (and largely hasn't) amounted to anything this season, dropping UGA from "rising power" to the same frustrating second-tier status it was never quite able to overcome under Richt's predecessor, Jim Donnan.
Now, there are a few glimmers of hope that Georgia will be able to avoid that fate. For one thing, the Bulldogs bounced back from the Tennessee loss with a convincing 34-10 win over Vanderbilt in which even the floundering running game managed to get into a groove. Florida, meanwhile, hasn't blown out anyone in more than a month, outlasting LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State on the strength of their defense while the Gators' once-formidable offense languishes. And believe it or not, the Bulldogs are 7-1 against defending national champions since 1965, including Florida in 1997 and 2007 -- both wins coming as decided underdogs. (At +16, this year's UGA team is actually getting more cred from the oddsmakers than the '97 team, which entered Jacksonville as a 20-point underdog.)
And, of course, the Bulldogs have the luxury of flying almost completely under the radar this week as they prepare for a game virtually no one expects them to win. It doesn't take a genius (or diehard Dawg fan) to see that as a double-edged sword: Once upon the time, Georgia was not only expected to win this game but met those expectations on a fairly regular basis, and it is that kind of team they'd very much like to be again. The '09 squad seems a long way off from that goal, though, and a second straight torching from Urban Meyer and the Gators will only increase the volume of those beginning to doubt whether Mark Richt is the man to get them there after all.