A New Level of Disgrace for Atlanta: This Is Who We Are and This Is What We Do

consThey say champions are forged in the crucible of pain.

But this was beyond pain.

This was beyond a necessary learning experience.

This was Atlanta through and through.

ICYMI:  Super Bowl 51 was played last night.  The Atlanta Falcons, the local NFL franchise, was one of the participating teams.  They led 28-3 with 2 minutes left in the third quarter.  They led 28-9 with 9 minutes left in the game.  They lost 34-28.

In 50 prior years of the Super Bowl’s existence, no team had ever led by more than 10 points and lost.  No team had ever lost after leading by more than 16 points in the fourth quarter of any NFL postseason game.

Said Dan Quinn, the Falcons’ head coach:  “This is a hard one for us….There’s no place to put that one.”

That’s right.  And there never will be.

This is who we are, and this is what we do.

The city of Atlanta has acquired the nickname “Loserville” because of our wretched professional sports scene, which has been a wasteland of disgrace and infamy over the years.  There was Mark Wohlers to Jim Leyritz in Game 6, the turning point of the 1996 World series, a loss so horrible that it has been 21 years and the Braves still have not recovered.  There was Game 6 against the Boston Celtics in 1986 (I think), where the Crocks (the local basketball franchise) choked at the end and have not caught even a whiff of a championship since.

But this is a new level of disgrace for the city of Atlanta.

This is a new level of disgrace for the Falcons, who like the rest of our city’s professional sports scene, have been no strangers to disgrace and infamy over the years.

There was the cartoon-esque appearance against the Denver Broncos 18 years ago the only other time the Falcons ever graced (or perhaps I should say “disgraced”) a Super Bowl.  There were epic postseason collapses against Dallas in 1980 and Green Bay in 2010.  Thirteen last-place finishes and 38 non-playoff finishes and a starting quarterback jailed for dogfighting and the journey through professional sports hell that was Bobby Petrino’s tenure.

In one exhilarating season the Falcons made us forget all of that.  A magical offense, a young and improving defense, a new direction seemingly affirmed, all brought us to the doorstep of greatness.  But more than any of that, this season will be remembered for how it ended–with a resounding SPLAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Once again, our city’s team and its fan base are left doubled over.  Nobody’s wind is coming back anytime soon.

Even against Bill Belichek, the best in the business, and Tom Brady, proud owner of five Super Bowl rings, this had “EPIC FAIL” written all over it.

It was 28-3 with two minutes left in the third quarter.  At that point ESPN had given the Falcons a 99.6 percent chance of winning the game.

It was 28-9 with less than 10 minutes remaining.

Even after New England scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to pull within 28-20 with 6 minutes left, a miraculous catch by Julio Jones put the Falcons well within field goal range.  A field goal would have likely put this game to bed.

The.  Game.  Was.  Over.

So what happened?  Tom Brady certainly had a part to play.  So did Mike Shanahan, the Falcons’ young-ish offensive coordinator who is now on his way to San Francisco, who got a little too smart for his own good and likely cost us the game at the end.

But this isn’t all on him.  The Falcons all had greatness within their reach and let it turn to shit.

This is on all of us.  We couldn’t see this coming, but we should have.

Because this is Atlanta.  This is who we are, and this is what we do.

Said defensive back Robert Alford, who returned an interception 81 yards for a touchdown in the first half:  “God says things happen for a reason.  So there’s a reason this happened.  I don’t know.”

Hey Robert:  I know the reason.

It’s because we are Atlanta.  This is who we are, and this is what we do.

It Was Time to Pull the Band-Aid Off

Before I go any further, let me make one thing excruciatingly clear:  No one is talking about firing Kirby Smart.  No one is calling for Greg McGarity to get rid of the coach he just hired.  I certainly am not.

It was time for Richt to go.  He was an excellent coach with a proven track record, but his program had peaked years ago and was in a state of noticeable decline, though still competing at a high level.

As noted previously, he was 14-23 against Top 25 opponents and 5-12 against the Top 10 from 2008 to 2015 after being 24-13 against the Top 25 from 2001 to 2007.  What’s more, there were only 4 losses by a margin greater than two touchdowns between 2001 and 2007.  From 2008 to 2015, there was at least one such loss every season and some seasons had multiple.  Not only were the losses to quality opposition becoming more frequent, they were becoming more emphatic as well.

There were cracks in the foundation last season.  Though we managed 10 wins, the vast majority of those were unimpressive wins against underwhelming opposition.  There was the Vanderbilt game where we needed not one but two late interceptions in or near the end zone before the game was in hand.  There was the 9-6 snorefest in which we managed to beat Missouri without scoring a single touchdown.  There were 7 and 6-point wins over Auburn and Georgia Tech respectively, who would both finish dead last in their respective divisions.  And don’t forget we got taken to overtime by Georgia Southern.

There were only two games in which we actually looked good:  South Carolina and Southern.  And even in the Southern game we didn’t look that great in the first half, and we only led 20-6 at halftime.

It was time to pull the Band-Aid off.

Coaching changes always come with risk.  There is always the risk that the new coach will be no better than, or even worse than, the coach he is replacing.  But Kirby Smart in 2015 was in the exact same position as Mark Richt in 2000–the long-tenured No. 1 assistant at the nation’s premier program–so any risk involved in hiring Kirby Smart was a well-considered risk.

Did we make a mistake in firing Mark Richt?  It is possible that we would have been better off with him this year.  But not by much.  As noted above, Richt had peaked several years ago.  There was not another championship in the foreseeable future, perhaps not even another division title.

It was time to pull the Band-Aid off.

Now I cannot and will not defend Kirby Smart’s performance over his first eight games as Georgia’s coach.  I expected more.  I expected better.  Kirby Smart’s first Georgia team is 4-4 against an underwhelming schedule, and that bothers me.

Florida is positioned to win the SEC East for a second consecutive year, but they still have Arkansas and LSU to come so don’t hold your breath.  Even the most obnoxious jean-short-sporting Gator fan will not dare to claim that Jim McElwain has yet brought their team back to greatness.  Tennessee, anointed as the new class of the SEC East, has lost 3 straight and is dealing with the sudden departure of Jalen Hurd, and whatever honor there may have been in losing to Tennessee is quickly slipping away.  Don’t look now, but Ole Miss, which wiped their asses with Georgia in Oxford last month, now has 4 losses.  And Vanderbilt–there is no honor in losing to Vanderbilt at any time, by any score, but you knew that already.

I have heard it said that the talent level in Athens is currently at a generational low.  Given what we are presently seeing, I believe it.  But help may be on the way.  Rivals has Georgia’s 2017 recruiting class ranked No. 5 based on commitments to date; ESPN has them at #3.  If in fact the talent level in Athens is at a generational low, the only cure for that is a string of huge recruiting hauls.

But even if we stipulate that, this team still has Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the backfield, Jacob Eason at quarterback, and Lorenzo Carter and Isaiah McKenzie in the receiving corps.  There is no excuse for the offensive futility we have seen to this point.  And there is certainly no excuse for losing to Vanderbilt.

At this point it is safe to assume that Kirby Smart’s debut season at Georgia is officially tanked.  But there will be other seasons.  If Georgia under Kirby Smart never gets better than Kirby Smart will not last long.  But if they do get better then we can forget that this awful season ever happened and write it off to transition.  Criticizing Kirby Smart’s performance to this point is not the same as saying that Georgia was wrong to hire him or wrong to fire Richt.  Kirby Smart has time to grow into the job.  But the clock is ticking.

Rebuilding Projects Shouldn’t Look This Bad

In 2013 Auburn changed coaches and came within 14 seconds of a national championship.

In 2015 Florida changed coaches and won the SEC East.

In 2016 Georgia changed coaches and…

Wait for it…

Lost to Vanderbilt.

With the loss, a program in a state of gradual decline though still pretty good, suddenly morphed into a laughingstock.  Vanderbilt is the laughingstock of the SEC; you don’t lose to Vanderbilt without becoming a laughingstock yourself.  Vanderbilt was Georgia’s homecoming opponent; all of Georgia’s 2017 and 2018 road opponents are now moving to make Georgia their homecoming game.

Given an off week to lick their wounds, Georgia then went down to Jacksonville where far too many Georgia hopes and dreams have died horrific deaths (that’s 21 losses in 27 years now, for those of you still keeping count), and brought the program to an embarrassing, mortifying low.

Why does it seem as if I have typed that phrase a million times over the past few years?

Rewind to a year ago at this time:  With the SEC East title on the line, Mark Richt made the regrettable decision to start Faton Bauta, a freshman quarterback with zero game experience whatsoever, in Georgia’s biggest game of the season.  He then compounded this egregious error by having Bauta, a natural option quarterback, attempt to run the exact same drop-back, pro-style offense he had been running all season long.  Square peg, meet round hole.

You can imagine how that went:  15 for 33 with four interceptions.  Down went Georgia, 27-3.  The game was a mortifying low for Georgia under Richt, who has a strong history of developing quarterbacks.  In all likelihood it was this game that sealed his fate, though his exit was not confirmed until four weeks later, after the season finale against Georgia Tech.

Don’t forget that the program was in a state of decline.  The numbers bear this out:  Richt was 14-23 against Top 25 opponents, 5-12 against the Top 10, from 2008 to 2015.  Compare this with 24-13 against ranked opponents from 2001 to 2007.

Like many of you, I was wishing and hoping that Richt could get it together and find a way to bring back the Richt of old, the Richt who gave us P-44 Haynes and 70X Takeoff and 2 SEC championships and 3 BCS bowl appearances in his first seven years.  But by that point, it had become abundantly clear that the Richt of old was dead and gone and all the wishing and hoping in the world was not going to bring him back.

It was time to pull the Band-Aid off.  Greg McGarity was right to make that decision.  But with the Band-Aid removed, it is as if the whole program has collapsed into an unrecognizable mass of bent steel, broken wood and crumbled concrete, with no indication whatsoever as to when anything remotely resembling a recognizable shape might rise from the wreckage.

Which brings us to this year’s game.  This time there was no bad quarterback decision.  Just an embarrassing, mortifying (there’s that word again) display of futility all around but especially on offense.

They were held to 21 yards rushing.  1.1 yards per carry.  You can usually fall forward and gain more yardage than that.

They were held to 164 yards total offense.  They were held scoreless on their last ten possessions.  They went three-and-out or four-and-out nine times.

For a team with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in its backfield, Jacob Eason at quarterback, and Lorenzo Carter and Isaiah McKenzie in its receiving corps, this was an embarrassing, mortifying display of offensive ineptitude.

With the Florida defense overloaded to stop the run and daring Eason to beat them through the air, the question was whether he could make enough throws.  He couldn’t.  Except for one frantic series early in the second quarter where he made enough throws to score a touchdown, Eason was running for his life all afternoon and got hit a lot.  Receivers seldom got open.

Yet the problems run deeper than an offensive line that looks as if it’s trying to move oak trees, a freshman quarterback and undersized receivers who can’t get open.  The playcalling of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has been unimaginative and predictable.  Among Chaney’s main selling points were his use of multiple offensive systems over his career and supposed willingness to adapt his scheme to the talent on hand, yet here we are.  Chaney has apparently been given some rope, given the talent (or lack thereof) that he has to work with, but with almost every offensive sequence these days beginning run-run-pass, even the sportscasters can predict what play is coming next.  How much more the other team.

Florida is not a great team by any stretch of the imagination, as evidenced by the fact that Georgia held them to 24 points and 231 yards total offense.  Yet they were good enough to wipe their asses with Georgia for a third consecutive year, and we will probably be seeing them in Atlanta on the first weekend of December for a second consecutive year.

Georgia had a bye week to prepare for this, as noted above, yet came out looking like the exact same listless, clueless, outmanned, overwhelmed bunch that lost to Vanderbilt, almost lost to Nicholls State, and might lose all their remaining games this year.

Georgia now has to win two of their next four games just to get bowl eligible.  Can you find two wins on the schedule?  Let’s have a look:

Kentucky:  They have won three straight and are now 4-2 in SEC play, something Georgia would give their very lives for.  The game is at night so fans will be loud.  This is a very dangerous game which Georgia could very likely lose.

Auburn:  Auburn has been prone to late-season collapses the last couple of years but after a 1-2 start they are much improved.  They have won four straight and will probably destroy Georgia.

USL:  Georgia will likely be favored against this Sun Belt opponent.  But after 1-AA punchline Nicholls State came to Athens and almost beat Georgia, can we assume anything?

Georgia Tech:  Georgia should be favored but Georgia Tech has the better record and this is a rivalry game and weird things happen.  Again, can we assume anything?

How many wins do you see there?  One, maybe.  Two at the absolute most.  Any more than that and you are positively delusional.

Georgia may not win another game this year.

I hear all you Richt supporters out there saying “We told you so!!!!!”  But again I remind you:  This program was in decline, though still pretty good.  The numbers bear this out, as I have mentioned already:  Richt was 14-23 against Top 25 opponents, 5-12 against the Top 10, from 2008 to 2015.  Compare this with 24-13 against ranked opponents from 2001 to 2007.

And even as Richt was winning four straight after the Jacksonville train wreck of 2015, there were cracks in the foundation which we now see in retrospect:  Three of those wins were unimpressive wins over unassuming opponents:  20-13 and 13-7 over Auburn and Georgia Tech respectively, opponents that would finish sixth out of seven teams in their respective divisions.  And let us not forget that we were taken to overtime by Georgia Southern.  That backdrop provides at least a little bit of context for what is happening in 2016.

It was time to pull the Band-Aid off.

But Kirby Smart was hired to change all that.  I still hold out hope that this will prove to be an aberration and in years to come he will go on to build a program that wins SEC championships and becomes relevant at the national level, just as we envisioned when we hired him away from Alabama.  I still hold out hope that he will make idiots out of all of us doubters.

But as the losses mount up and the embarrassment and mortification build with each successive week, I find myself feeling increasingly delusional, just like those who insist to their dying breath that Donald Trump would make a good president.

So what do we do now?  Change coaches again?

Nope.  Tried that already.

This Should Have Been Easy

This should have been easy.  Georgia was playing a punchline.

By the end of the afternoon, Georgia was the punchline.

Georgia played Nicholls State yesterday.  Georgia barely hung on to win, 26-24.

There is no way to spin this.  Nicholls State was the worst opponent to set foot on the field at Sanford Stadium in decades.  Nicholls State was paid $525,000 to come to Athens and take a beating.  They were a 49 1/2 to 55 1/2 point underdog, depending upon who in Vegas had a bigger sense of humor.

Nicholls State was not just a 1-AA opponent–they were a 1-AA opponent that didn’t win a single game in all of 2014 and only won three games in all of 2015.  This was a team that had lost last year to Northeast Louisiana, McNeese State, Sam Houston State, and Colorado by a combined score of 169-14.

This is a team that lives to be as good as Lamar.

There is no way in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, that such a team is good enough to go on the road and come within two points of beating a major SEC power.  This is entirely on us.

We couldn’t block.  We couldn’t run.  We couldn’t put away a team that most people can’t even place in the correct state.  (Louisiana, by the way.)

The game started well enough:  Georgia went 67 yards in five plays on the opening drive, with Eason completing passes of 12 and 36 yards on his first two attempts and Chubb taking it in from the 6, and the rout was on.

Until it wasn’t.

Georgia managed a 90-yard drive that stalled at the Nicholls State 13 and resulted in a field goal.  Except for that, they netted 22 yards and two first downs on five other possessions.  They let a woefully overmatched opponent hang around and before you know it, said woefully overmatched opponent was winning 14-13 midway through the third quarter.

Isaiah McKenzie gave Georgia the lead back with a reception over the middle that he busted for a 66-yard touchdown.  Georgia would build the lead to 26-14, then almost blow it at the end.

Jacob Eason played well in his first start, but not nearly well enough to settle the quarterback controversy.  Though he played most of the game, Kirby Smart had so little confidence in him by the end that he inserted Greyson Lambert for the final two series.  It was Lambert who probably saved the game with a frantic 9-yard completion to Michael Chigbu on third-and-7 from the Georgia 10 with less than three minutes left.

And herein lies the problem:  When you’re talking about a frantic third-down completion with less than three minutes remaining–a play which could easily have resulted in a sack or possibly a sack-and-fumble–as the play that saved the game–against a 50-plus point underdog from Division 1-AA–that’s a problem.

By the end of the Richt administration, Georgia had devolved into a fragile power–a team that looks great until it doesn’t and then you’d better avert your eyes.  Horrible losses to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida in 2015 and Florida the year before showed cracks in the foundation of this team’s psyche.  “Finish The Drill” was the catchphrase of the Richt administration, but way too many drills were left unfinished, especially in the final years.

When Georgia goes up against a team it is projected to beat by seven to eight touchdowns and is lucky to stumble across the finish and escape with the win, it reaffirms that the problems continue to run deep.  There are intractable issues with the psyche of this program which set in during the final years of the Richt era, and it is going to take Kirby Smart a long time to fix them.

This should have been easy.  Georgia was playing a punchline.  But by the end of the afternoon Georgia had become the punchline.  Though the ranking said ninth, the performance said Liberty Bowl.

Yep:  They’re still Georgia.  They’re still SOOOOOOO Georgia.

Kirby Smart has his work cut out for him.  And it is going to take a long time.

Georgia Has Reason to Be Cautions

kirbyICYMI (that’s “In Case You Missed It”, for those of you who are not millennials or otherwise familiar with the ways millennials express themselves via texting and social media):  Georgia won its season opener against a good North Carolina team, and looked very impressive doing it.  Now Georgia is moving up in the polls, and the hype is starting to build.  But hold on.

The existence of a Georgia fan is all about waiting for the other shoe to drop.  You know the drill:  Raise expectations to the sky with a big win and a fast start.  Give the fans a vision of every goal sitting out there on the table, just waiting to be had, a reason to believe that this year could be different, that this year could be something special.  Then wrap the fuse around your leg and blow it all to smithereens with a wretched loss that wipes away every positive memory from whatever came before.  Under the previous administration, this had come to happen far too often.  Which is why the previous administration is now the previous administration.

Coach Richt came to Athens and promptly brought two SEC championships in his first five years to a program that hadn’t had any in two decades.  And then never won another.  Don’t look now, but it has been over a decade since Georgia’s last SEC championship.

coyoteSeasons which featured memorable wins were overshadowed by even more memorable losses.  Last year Georgia won its first four games and rose to No. 8 in the country.  Then Alabama came to town and rendered that No. 8 ranking a punchline, in a horrible flashback to the failed “Blackout” of 2008.  The year before, Georgia bodyslammed Clemson 45-21 in the season opener and rose to No. 6 in the rankings.  The next week they went to Columbia and, presumably still infatuated with themselves, proceeded to lose to a South Carolina team that would win only three conference games that year.  Later that year they would raise hopes again with impressive road wins at Missouri and Arkansas, only to go to Jacksonville and get shit on by a Florida team that would fire its coach the very next week.  In 2013 there was a monster start featuring two wins over three Top 10 opponents in four weeks, capped off by an unforgettable win over LSU that left us all breathless.  This was followed by a horrid loss to Missouri and an even more wretched loss to Vanderbilt and in the space of only a week and a few hours Georgia had gone from firmly in control of the SEC East to dead on arrival in the SEC East.  In 2012 Georgia started 5-0 and rose to No. 5, then went to South Carolina and got lit up like a guy smoking cigarettes at the gas station while pumping gas.

And since we’re talking about the failed “Blackout” of 2008, remember that?  Georgia started the season at #1, won its first four, including a huge win in Tempe over Arizona State.  The next week Alabama came to town, burned down our crops, stole all our livestock, and wiped their asses with those black jerseys.  Remember 2007, when Georgia started 4-1, including a win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, only the second win in Tuscaloosa in program history?  Georgia then went to Tennessee and fell behind 28-0 before the band came onto the field for the pregame show and if Richt and Fulmer had then agreed to just call it off and play out the rest of the game, no one would have known the difference.  The loss was such a grease stain on Georgia’s resume that year that it kept them out of the national championship discussion despite a strong finish that should have gotten them in.  How about 2006, when a 5-0 start against less-than-stellar competition led to severely inflated expectations, and was then followed by a horrible stretch which included losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky (yes, Kentucky)?

So yeah, there’s reason to be cautious.

Georgia looked impressive in its season opener against North Carolina, rallying from 10 points down in the second half to win going away.  The pollsters were so impressed that they moved Georgia up from No. 18 all the way to No. 9.  This week Georgia plays Nicholls State (and a prize off the shelf to the first person who can locate that school on a map).  Next week Georgia heads to Columbia for what will be (unless something goes horribly wrong) its first conference win of the season over the remains of Missouri.  So the hype is only going to build over the next couple of weeks.

At what point do we jump?

The SEC East has been a toxic waste dump for the entirety of this decade, and this year it doesn’t look a whole lot different.  Florida, the defending SEC East champion, led UMass by only 3 after 3 quarters.  Missouri looked unimpressive while getting thumped by West Virginia.  South Carolina beat Vanderbilt only because, duh, somebody had to win that game.  Kentucky blew a three-touchdown lead and lost to–wait for it–Southern Miss.  And Tennessee, the projected SEC East champion, got taken to overtime by Appalachian State, and had to come from 10 points down in the fourth quarter just to force overtime.  So yes, the SEC East is definitely there for the taking.

Everything about last week’s game says that a page has been turned and this is the dawning of a new era.  But it was only one game (small sample size).  We have no idea how Kirby Smart will fare over the course of a full season, and being an unknown commodity could play to his advantage as his legacy has not yet been defined and there is no perceived limit to what he can do and what he can accomplish.  Has the page truly been turned?  Is this truly the dawning of a new era?  We will know soon enough, in just a few weeks.

The Checkers Were Equal and Kirby Smart Came Through

kirbyAdmit it, fellow Georgia fans:  At one point in the third quarter you were thinking “Oh no, here we go again”.  You thought you were looking at the same Georgia of the final days of the Mark Richt era–the same Georgia that couldn’t hold its nerve under fire, the same Georgia that had ceased to win big games, the same Georgia that ultimately wound up firing Mark Richt.

You saw North Carolina score 17 unanswered points to take a 24-14 lead and you had post-traumatic flashbacks to collapses of prior years:  blowing a two-touchdown fourth quarter lead with horrible defense and a comedy of special teams errors and losing to Vanderbilt in 2013, blowing a three-touchdown lead in Knoxville in 2015 and losing to a Tennessee team Georgia had no business losing to in any venue, by any score.  And let’s not forget those two train wrecks down in Jacksonville.

I know.  I was right there with you, thinking the same thing.

When the second half started with a special teams breakdown on the opening kickoff followed by a missed field goal followed by a horrible defensive series and an easy North Carolina score, I thought surely Georgia was in the process of coming undone and the rest would be excruciating to watch.

But then a funny thing happened:  Georgia didn’t come undone.

In came Jacob Eason, who had already played for a couple of series in the first half.  Eason had entered the game in the second quarter after starter Greyson Lambert had accumulated more sacks than completions, and scored a touchdown in his second collegiate series.  He probably would have had one in his first series, had not Brendan Douglas fumbled at the end of a long run inside the North Carolina 20.  On the next series, freshman running back Brian Herrien finished it with a 19-yard touchdown run to give Georgia a 14-7 lead.

It was 14-10 at the half but that did not last long.  North Carolina’s T. J. Logan made the entire Georgia kickoff coverage unit look silly while returning the opening kickoff of the second half 95 yards for a touchdown.  Greyson Lambert drove Georgia to within field goal range, but William Ham missed from 42 yards out.  North Carolina surged to another touchdown, with Logan scoring again.

When Eason reentered the game, everything changed.  Two pass interference penalties led to third down conversions which kept the drive alive, and Isaiah McKenzie took a forward lateral from Eason 17 yards for a score.

At that point it was North Carolina that came undone.  After an ineligible-receiver-downfield penalty overrode a first down on the ensuing series, coach Larry Fedora drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty protesting the call, backing North Carolina up all the way to the 4 yard line.  Quarterback Mitch Trubinsky took a shotgun snap and threw across the end zone to Elijah Hood, who was promptly forced out of bounds, and if you had never before seen a completed pass result in a safety, well, you just did.

From there Georgia controlled the game.  Eason drove to within field goal range and this time Ham didn’t miss, and Georgia led 26-24 with 5:47 left in the game.  On the ensuing kickoff North Carolina was penalized, then penalized again for offensive interference, then saw what had been a first down ruled an incompletion after replay review.  Georgia got the ball back needing only a couple of first downs to ice the game.  Chubb took it 55 yards for a score to end all possible doubt.

Eason was not dazzling; he had 8 completions in 12 attempts for 139 yards, and three of those completions were little more than forward handoffs.  Clearly offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was attempting to bring his freshman quarterback along slowly, starting him off with easily makeable throws.  Yet here we note the difference between Eason and Lambert:  Eason made his throws.  He brought a counterbalance to the Georgia offense which had been lacking for the entirety of the 2015 season.  Opposing defenses were able to tee off on Chubb, playing to stop the run and daring Greyson Lambert to beat them through the air.  Chubb still got his yards for the most part, but life was miserable for him and that probably contributed to his injury.  But Eason showed something that opposing defenses will have to respect, and that should make life at least a little bit easier for Chubb.

It is too early to say that a new day has dawned (one game–small sample size).  We will know more by the beginning of October.  But this was a game where, to borrow Urban Meyer’s catchphrase, the checkers were equal, and Kirby Smart came through.  Georgia fell 10 points behind a worthy opponent in the second half and not only won but won going away.  It has been far too long since the last time that happened.

Kirby Smart Was Hired for Games Like This

kirby

It is a common misperception in the world of college football that coaches are judged on the bases of wins and losses.  Going by that metric alone, Mark Richt was the greatest coach in the history of Georgia football.

But coaches are not judged by wins and losses alone.  Coaches are judged by how they perform in light of expectations.  Or to put it another way, how they perform “when the checkers are equal”, to borrow an Urban Meyer catchphrase.  In those types of games, Richt has not done so well lately.  Which is why he is now in Coral Gables readying Miami for its season opener against Florida A&M instead of in Athens readying Georgia for its nationally televised opener against North Carolina this evening.

Games like this are the sort of test Richt had come to fail frequently in recent years.  Ever since the Blackout debacle of 2008 in which Georgia infamously trailed Alabama by 31 points after only 30 minutes, Richt was 14-23 against Top 25 opponents, 5-12 against the Top 10.

Richt had also acquired this annoying habit of losing to teams he shouldn’t have lost to.  Each of the past three seasons featured at least one loss to an unranked opponent:  Vanderbilt in 2013, the Florida train wreck of 2014, and the collapse at Tennessee in 2015.  But that was not what did Richt in; it was his failure in the big games.

Will Kirby Smart do any better?  We can’t know because he has never worked a big game, or a game of any kind, as a head coach.  But the guess is that he will not be overwhelmed.  He has been prepping for this his entire career.  He hails from Alabama, which since 2010 has gone 13-2 against the Top 10.  And even if he doesn’t quite have Alabama-caliber talent at his disposal, the talent he does have isn’t exactly that bad.  Georgia has always recruited well, and Richt recruited exceptionally well.  (Recruiting was never the issue with Richt.  The issue was what happened to all those recruits after they got into the program.)

The schedule Kirby Smart inherited features four big games:  North Carolina, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Florida in Jacksonville.  (Auburn and Georgia Tech don’t really count as both these rivals are picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in their respective divisions.  Schadenfreude–one of the few pleasures available to Georgia fans lately.  Add this to the list of reasons why Richt is now in Coral Gables instead of in Athens.)

Looking at tonight’s game, we have an opponent coming off an 11-3 season in 2015 that is ranked No. 23 in the preseason AP poll, just four spots behind Georgia; a game Georgia could easily lose if they are not careful.  Yet this is an eminently beatable opponent; they were last seen giving up something like 600 yards rushing, and Georgia has some guys that can run the ball.

Looking ahead to the remainder of the season, we see that the biggest remaining games are Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Florida.  Ole Miss is actually pretty good these days, but this is a game Georgia can lose and still win the SEC East.  Tennessee under Butch Jones has yet to beat a good opponent on the road, and they must come to Athens this year.  And Florida is picked to finish third in the division behind Tennessee and Georgia.  The SEC East has been a dumpster fire all decade long, and it remains in flux this year.  Its defending champion (Florida) is picked to finish third this year, and its projected champion (Tennessee) is a team that has not yet beaten a good opponent on the road.  Which means that Kirby Smart has a prime opportunity to make a splash in his first year.

Which begs the question:  If all of the above is true, then why not keep Richt around?  If Georgia has an opportunity to do great things this year, then wouldn’t they have been better served to avail themselves of the benefits of continuity?  Answer:  No.  As noted above, Richt has not done well in games where the checkers are equal, so to speak.  There are four such games on the schedule this year.  Also as noted above, Richt has lately acquired the habit of losing at least one game a year that he has no business losing.  There is good reason to believe that both of those tendencies would have submarined our season this year.  We have seen what Richt can do, and we should have only expected more of the same if we kept Richt.

It wasn’t always so.  Back in earlier, happier times, Richt’s teams were capable of beating anybody anywhere (except Florida in Jacksonville, for some reason).  But times change, as times have a way of doing.

And now, here we are.

Kirby Smart was hired for games like this.  In just a few hours we will know a whole lot more about whether he can do what he was hired to do.

Well, It Happened

richt

Well, it happened.

Coach Richt is gone.

In all probability, the decision was already made weeks ago.  One doesn’t fire a coach the day after a fourth consecutive win and a 9-3 regular season finish unless the wheels have already been in motion for quite some time.  More than likely, athletic director Greg McGarity and president Jere Morehead saw the Jacksonville train wreck back in October and decided they had seen enough.

All you Richt detractors out there:  Don’t start crowing just yet.

It is a very sad day when your school has to fire its head coach.  Richt was a great person and a good coach–everything a college football head coach ought to be.  He ran his program the right way.  His program consistently ranked at or near the top in player graduation rates.  He cares deeply for his players and staff and has a healthy perspective on the mission of college sports.  Among college football coaches, especially at the highest level, this puts him in a very small minority.  He brought two SEC championships to a program that had gone without for two decades prior to his arrival.  And when knuckleheaded antics by his recruits began to tarnish the image of his program in later years, he shed the enabling ways of his mentor Bobby Bowden and began to implement tough love.

For all of this, Richt should be praised.  It certainly gave me pause in suggesting that Richt should go, and I hope it gives you pause as well.

I still remember the Richt of old.  Unless you had him completely and totally outmanned–and there were very few teams back in those days who did–the absolute last thing you wanted to see in the fourth quarter of a tight game was his face on the opposing sideline.  Because if you did see that face, you knew it was all over.  You knew that he would think of something, that his team would make a play and send you down in flames.

This was the coach who gave us P-44 Haynes in Knoxville in 2001 and 70X Takeoff in Auburn in 2002.  Exhilarating moments, both of them.  Those were heady days back then, when it seemed that anything was possible and the sky was the limit for Richt and for Georgia.  The numbers bear that out:  14-12 against teams that finished over .500 in SEC play, 24-13 against ranked opponents, 3 division titles, 2 conference titles, and 3 major bowl appearances from 2001 to 2007.  The buildup from all of that was so great that after a strong finish in 2007 that would see a young Georgia team demolish Hawaii on the evening of January 1, 2008, Georgia would start the 2008 season at #1.

It grieves me–it breaks my heart–to think that that Richt is now long since dead and gone, even though his body still walks the Georgia sideline every Saturday during football season.

Yet that is the reality we are left to face.  You see, in that fateful 2008 season, Georgia would lose to Alabama in Athens.  In what had been one of the most heavily hyped games in Athens in years, Georgia came out monumentally unprepared and trailed at the half 31-nil.

Nothing has been the same since.

The numbers bear that out too:  5-16 against teams that would finish over .500 in SEC play, 13-24 against ranked opponents, 2 division titles (though none since 2012), 0 conference titles, and 0 major bowl appearances from 2008 to present.

Not only were the losses to quality opposition becoming more frequent, they were becoming more emphatic as well.  In this season alone, Georgia lost to ranked opponents in its two biggest games by a combined score of 65-13.  Ever since 2008, every season has featured at least one loss by more than two touchdowns.  Some seasons have had multiple.

And now it has gotten to the point where school administrators have seen enough.

McGarity came to Georgia in 2010, replacing the fired AD Damon Evans.  He has extended the benefit of every possible doubt to an immensely popular coach whom he inherited.  He refrained from firing Richt after a mortifying 6-7 finish in 2010 and after a horrible 0-2 start in 2011.  There are indications that he intended to let Richt go after 2014 but was persuaded to keep him on.  But at this point, there is no more benefit of the doubt left to extend.  At this point, it seems quite clear what Georgia under Richt is capable of.

Clearly Georgia under Richt has settled into being “pretty good”.  What else can you say after a 9-3 finish that does not include a single win over a major conference opponent with a winning record?  After a 72-32 (43-21 SEC) record from 2008 to present that also includes records of 5-16 against teams that would finish over .500 in SEC play and 13-24 against ranked opponents?  That includes two division titles (none since 2012), no conference titles, and no major bowl appearances?

So McGarity had to ask himself:  Is “pretty good” good enough?  And if not, is there reason to believe that Richt can turn things around and bring Georgia back to greatness?  And if the answer to that question is no, then isn’t it clear what needs to be done?

Evidently the answer McGarity got was no.  He had seen enough over the past five seasons to know what Georgia under Richt was capable of, and he did what needed to be done.

It is a very sad day when your school has to fire its head coach.  But just because something is sad, doesn’t mean that it is wrong or that it doesn’t need to be done.  Richt is a very good coach who has done a lot of great things here at Georgia.  But it has come too far, the losses to quality opposition have become too frequent and too emphatic, and at the end of the day it has become clear that a change is needed.

There is risk inherent in this.  Changing head coaches is a two-part proposition, and getting rid of the old coach is the easy part.  There are no guarantees that whoever takes Richt’s place will be any better than Richt.  But it had become clear that Georgia under Richt had hit a ceiling; that if we kept Richt we were only going to get more of the same, more of what we had been getting from 2008 to present.  It had become clear that Georgia under Richt was pretty good, but not great.  And at the end of the day, “pretty good” was not good enough.

A Win That Doesn’t Feel Like a Celebration

richtGeorgia beat Georgia Tech today, 13-7.  And it meant…what, exactly?

This had the feel of two ghost ships passing in the night.  A Georgia Tech team in complete freefall going up against a Georgia team that failed to meet expectations and is on its way to yet another afterthought of a bowl game four weeks hence.  The game was relegated to the middle of the day Saturday, presumably because there was no room for it on Wednesday or Thursday night or any of the other times that mid-major games are played.

The game was won by Pruitt’s defense, which has improved significantly over the final half of the season.  (Whatever happens this offseason, if Georgia lets Pruitt go they will be making a huge mistake.)  The defense very nearly notched a shutout, Georgia Tech’s first since 1997 and Paul Johnson’s first since 2001 at Navy.  It wasn’t, only because Georgia defender Jake Ganus was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on a third-down incompletion.  The penalty resulted in a first down at the Georgia 32, which set up an eventual touchdown pass by Justin Thomas.

It was nearly over on the first series, when tailback Sony Michel broke loose on 4th-and-1 and took it 34 yards for a score.  A pair of Marshall Morgan field goals in the second half provided some breathing room.  The aforementioned touchdown by Georgia Tech made it interesting at the end.  But after fielding the ensuing kickoff and downing it at the 8 (?????), Georgia was able to run off all but the last 17 seconds, and Georgia Tech’s last-gasp pass was intercepted, and that was that.

As for Richt and his future in Athens, this means…well, what exactly?  Greg McGarity was mum on the subject today.  It’s hard to imagine Georgia letting Richt go after four straight wins and a 9-3 finish.  (Though it has happened.  Jim Donnan was let go in 2000 after finishing 8-4.)  Though if Richt is safe, why not just come out and say it right now?  Maybe because there is doubt on the subject?

There should be.  Credit to Georgia and Richt for not giving up after the Jacksonville fiasco, but the story of this season has already been defined.  It was defined back in October, a hideous month which saw Georgia go 1-3, losing its two biggest games by a combined score of 65-13.  Those losses ended any and all hope Georgia may have had of winning the SEC East, a division they were overwhelmingly picked to win.  Again.  Only to fail.  Again.

Georgia has five SEC wins to its credit, over teams with a combined record of 8-29 in league play.  Georgia has beaten the bottom four teams in the SEC East and the worst team in the SEC West–teams whose only SEC wins this year have come against each other.  So now we are left to debate which is the more significant win:  South Carolina (1-7 SEC and 3-9 overall) or Auburn (2-6 SEC)?

Who’s planting a big “G” flag in the end zone over that?

Look at the backdrop of previous seasons, and the view doesn’t get any better.  Going all the way back to 2008, Richt’s record against teams that have finished over .500 in SEC play is 5-16.  His record against ranked opponents is 13-24.  He has 2 division titles (though none since 2012), 0 conference titles, and 0 major bowl appearances.

Contrast that with the early half of his career.  From 2001 to 2007 Richt was 14-12 against teams that finished over .500 in SEC play, and 24-13 against ranked opponents.  He had 3 division titles, 2 conference titles, and 3 major bowl appearances.  By all accounts, he and Georgia seemed on the fast track to greatness back then.  So much so, that they started the 2008 season ranked #1.

Then came the failed blackout, in which Alabama led 31-nil at the half.  Nothing has been the same since.

I trust Greg McGarity to make the right decision at the right time with respect to Richt’s future in Athens.  Here is what he will have to ask himself:  Once on the fast track to greatness, Georgia under Richt has clearly settled into being “pretty good”.  Is “pretty good” good enough?  If not, is there reason to believe that Richt can bring this program back to greatness?  And if the answer to that question is no, then isn’t it clear what needs to be done?

A Good Day for Georgia: A Big Win Over a Lousy Opponent

"If only we could play these guys every week"

“If only we could play these guys every week”

Apparently we’ve found our winning secret:  Play Kentucky.

This is where we are right now:  A good day for Richt and Georgia is a big win over an overmatched opponent.

There were all sorts of rumors of epic dysfunction on the Georgia coaching staff flying out of Athens the past week.  Depending on who you believe, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had punched another assistant coach or six and was on his way out the door.  And athletic director Greg McGarity had wanted to fire Richt at the end of last season but was overruled by president Jere Morehead and gave him a contract extension instead.  USA Today got into the act, reporting that big changes could be coming soon at Georgia.

All of which prompted Richt to take to the Twittersphere on Thursday:  “Just so everyone knows, Jeremy Pruitt is our defensive coordinator and is in the office working diligently getting ready for Kentucky!”  (Like that touch, putting the exclamation point after “Kentucky”.  Makes you think they actually matter, you know, like this is basketball or something.)

Yeah, that’s kinda what happens when you lose the two biggest games on your schedule by a combined score of 65-13.

But we made it to the end of the week and, for whatever it’s worth, we can now say “At least we’re not Kentucky”.

“A good day,” Richt said in the postgame news conference.  “A good solid victory.”  And it was.  (Let’s not talk about the first half.)

The defense played great.  The offense played better.  (As if they could have played any worse than they played the past month.)  Greyson Lambert was awful, but we knew that already.  Not that he needed to be any good.  Tailback Sony Michel and receiver Terry Godwin took direct snaps, with Godwin orchestrating a version of the Wildcat (Georgia called it the Wild Dog–understandable that they wouldn’t want to run anything called the Wildcat against Kentucky).  So why didn’t we try this against Florida instead of letting Bauta throw the ball 33 times?  Who knows?

The first half saw only one touchdown, which came when Godwin fumbled a snap and then picked it up and ran it 28 yards to score.  (Who says Schottenheimer can’t draw up a cool play?)  It also saw Richt play for field goals twice–once on fourth-and-inches from the 6–and being rewarded only once.  As noted earlier, best not to talk about the first half.

But this was Kentucky.  Kentucky has lost its previous two games by a combined margin of 57 points.  As long as we didn’t mess this up terribly, we were going to win.  (Credit Georgia for keeping focused and not collapsing during a difficult week, which could easily have happened.)

We had better players and we won.  That’s what Georgia does.  We could very easily make it to the end of November and be 9-3 without having beaten a single Power 5 opponent with a winning record.

Therein lies the reason for the soap opera that Georgia football has become over the past week.  Georgia under Richt has proven itself more than capable of winning games–just not capable of winning games that matter.

Just one week after destroying Georgia by three and a half touchdowns at a neutral site, Florida needed a late field goal to beat Vanderbilt at home.  And so Florida, the flimsiest champion the SEC East has produced this decade, will grace the Georgia Dome four weeks hence.  For the third year in a row, the most talented team in the SEC East will be sitting at home on Championship Saturday.

So here is what Georgia fans–and more to the point, Georgia administrators–must ask themselves in the coming weeks:  Is it enough for us to fatten up on the Vanderbilts and Kentuckys of the world?  Is it enough to rack up the wins in games where, to put it tactfully, talent differential alone is sufficient to guarantee victory?

We just beat a lousy opponent.  If we had beaten a good opponent at some point within the previous calendar year, there would not be any discussion concerning Richt’s future in Athens.