October 12, 2009
Every bad season has that nauseating, "over the falls in a barrel" moment, and for Georgia, I suspect that moment was with roughly 12 minutes remaining in the first half Saturday at Knoxville, when perennial laughingstock Jonathan Crompton hit Denarius Moore for a 33-yard touchdown to put Tennessee up 14-7. It was Crompton's second TD pass in as many drives, a first in his beleaguered career, and signaled that the rest of the Bulldogs' afternoon would be the gridiron equivalent of the barrel hitting the rocks at the bottom over and over (and over and over, once for each of the subsequent Vol touchdowns from that point) for the rest of the afternoon -- by the end of which UGA fans saw all too clearly that the rest of their season was shaping up to be one suicidal plunge after another.
They could explain away the dismal numbers through the 3-2 start, the result of the no-holds-barred schedule, an unusually elastic/opportunisitic defense, possibly overzealous officiating. The losses to Oklahoma State and LSU were unsettling, but understandable against two of the most highly-touted outfits in the country; survival in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona State was proof that this team "knew how to win" or something.
Tennessee, however, a lopsided loss to a mediocre, one-dimensional team on the brink of collapse itself after an 0-2 SEC start, was definitive proof that the Bulldogs don't really know how to do anything. Even the athletic director had to publicly acknowledge that he has some "concerns," possibly code for yes, the defensive coordinator is on the hot seat." And the numbers more than bear it out -- halfway through the season, Georgia is currently:
• ... being outscored by five points and outgained by about 50 yards per game. Throughout Mark Richt's tenure, UGA has never outscored opponents by less than a touchdown or outgained them by fewer 50 yards on average.
• ... dead last in the SEC in rushing offense in both yards per game and yards per carry, and next-to-last in total offense. The Bulldogs have been held below 100 yards on the ground three weeks in a row, and aside from the 530-yard explosion against Arkansas, are averaging 283 total yards in their other five.
• ... dead last in the SEC in scoring defense and next-to-last in total, passing and pass efficiency D. In three of four SEC games -- against South Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee -- UGA has allowed at least 37 points, 400 total yards and 300-plus yards passing, already highs for the Richt era in all three categories.
• ... dead last in the SEC and third-to-last nationally in turnover margin at –11 for the year. Excluding the LSU game (where both teams turned it over once), the Bulldogs have given the ball away at least three times in each of their other five, and finished at least –2 in all of them.
Georgia only does two things relatively well -- punt (No. 1 nationally in net yards) and protect the quarterback (No. 1 in the SEC in sacks allowed) -- and the really scary thought for UGA partisans is this: If South Carolina converts any one of five field goal drives inside the Bulldog red zone into a touchdown instead, or converts its last-gasp pass into the end zone from inside the Bulldog 10 at the end of the game, or if A.J. Green fails to block Arizona State's go-ahead field goal attempt in the final minutes, this team could easily be 1-5.
The optimists in the house will note that this is exactly the point where previously fading Richt teams have rallied -- in 2006, with a struggling true freshman quarterback and four losses in five games following a 5-0 start, UGA came out of nowhere to rout No. 2 Auburn on the road, hold off ACC Coastal champ Georgia Tech and come from behind to beat Virginia Tech in the bowl game for an improbable 9-4, top-25 finish. In 2007, with two division losses and a very sluggish home win over Vanderbilt by mid-October, the 'Dogs hit the gas out of a bye week with the infamous end zone dance and a star-making turn by Knowshon Moreno against Florida, the first of six straight wins by double digits en route to a Sugar Bowl bid and a No. 2 finish in the final polls. It hasn't happened often, but with their back against the wall, Richt's teams have tended to respond.
But this team pretty clearly does not have a Moreno in the backfield; its one legitimate star on offense, Green, is already doing as much as you can reasonably expect any one player to do. Joe Cox, big games against Carolina and Arkansas notwithstanding, is not turning into Matt Stafford. If there's going to be any turnaround, it has to start with the defense, and with the regularly flambéed secondary, in particular, which lacks neither talent nor experience but has yielded 14 touchdown passes 36 completions of at least 15 yards in six games. Vanderbilt's inept passing game should be a stopgap this week heading into the usual pre-Cocktail Party bye. If the 'Dogs don't at least come out of that break swinging against the Gators on Halloween, topping .500 with Auburn and Georgia Tech down the stretch is going to start looking like wishful thinking.