As a group, Georgia fans are veterans at this point of existential crises over Mark Richt's future as head coach, and of navigating the competing factions that come with them. On the heels of an 0-2 start, though, there's no disagreement on the basic premise: The program is spiraling in the wrong direction, and have been for a long time.
Since opening atop the preseason polls in 2008, the Bulldogs have progressively fallen out of the top 10, then out of the polls altogether, then below .500 for the first time in 15 years. They've lost nine of their last ten against ranked opponents. At this rate, they're going to be bowl-less for the holidays this winter, at which point the time for debate will be long passed.
Still, the other half of the equation is more elusive: How in the world did they get here? Richt is still the same guy who delivered two SEC championships and five top-10 finishes in six years from 2002-07. Recruiting is still good. (The latest recruiting class, arguably the most hyped of Richt's tenure, is the fifth in six years ranked among Rivals' top 10 incoming classes nationally.) The NFL remains very interested. (At least four Bulldogs have gone in the draft every single year since 2001, including six from the 2010 team earlier this year.) If it's not talent, then what?
Are we really going to be forced to start talking about things like "leadership"?
? It was the team leadership through the last few years that most concerned Kelin Johnson, the defensive captain and vocal leader of the 2007 squad.
"One of the hardest things is walking around this city and to be around these players and to see some of them taking things for granted, some of the guys who are just happy to put the 'G' on or to wear a Georgia football shirt downtown to pick up women," Johnson said. "They want to put a 'G' on so people will recognize them. So what? The 'G' doesn't make you. As soon as these players realize the 'G' doesn't make the person, the person makes the 'G,' that's how they know Georgia's so much better than everybody else."
Well, maybe. One this side of the business, though, intangibles like "leadership" fall squarely into the category of Known Unknowns: They're impossible to assess, and may not matter nearly as much as everyone says they do. Maybe, maybe not. Unfortunately, that also goes for the best guess by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chip Towers, who ties the beginning of the Bulldogs' decline to Richt's decision to give up play-calling day-to-day oversight of the offense circa 2007 ? not because of the effect it had on the offense, but because of the effect it had on Richt, whatever that is:
Think about that for a minute. For 11 years before Richt came to Georgia, he was quarterbacks coach and/or offensive coordinator at Florida State, which happened to finish in the Top 5 nationally every one of those years. For the majority of that time, he was game-planning and play-calling for the Seminoles. Then he comes to Georgia in December of 2000 and, after... calling the national championship game with FSU, he hits the recruiting trail for the Bulldogs and assumes the same offensive responsibilities at UGA in addition to being head coach.
That goes on through the 2006 season, when he finally entrusts the Xs and Os to somebody else. It was an exhausting run, I'm sure.
But again, more than not calling all the offensive shots, this represented a profound change in how Richt went about his business, both on a weekly and daily basis all the way down to game management. That must have had some sort of effect on the way things have gone.
What that effect is, Towers can't say. As he says, though, the offense itself hasn't suffered at all in Richt's absence ? in fact, scoring, total offense and pass efficiency�averages from 2008-10 were slightly better than the averages in the salad days, and are already on a similar pace through the first two games this year. Saturday's 436-yard, 42-point outburst against South Carolina was UGA's sixth 40-point effort in its last eight games.
Which is brings us to the old standby: The defense. Back in the days when no one could imagine the words "Mark Richt" and "hot seat" appearing in the same sentence, the go-to scapegoat was defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who was promoted in 2005 to oversee a unit that had finished in the top 15 nationally in both scoring and total defense three years in a row under predecessor Brian Van Gorder. In Martinez's first three years, the D finished in the top 20 on both counts all three years. Surprise: Those six seasons produced five outright or shared division titles, five top-10 finishes and two SEC championships.
And in the three seasons hence? With virtually identical numbers from the offense,�the Bulldogs have slid into the bottom half of the SEC statistically and have given up at least 35 points 13 times in a little over three years. That trend hasn't reversed itself under Martinez's replacement, Todd Grantham, whose second is off to an even worse start than his first. At the moment, there is no one on the defense who resembles a star or a consistent impact player.
The good news for the moment is that the Bulldogs get an easy addition to the win column this weekend ?�we'll go ahead that Coastal Carolina is no upset threat, because it's all over but the torch-and-pitchfork raid on Richt's house if it is ?�ahead of a make-or-break stretch against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee. Those three games will decide whether Richt still has a chance to lift himself out of the fire against rivals Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech down the stretch, and after Saturday, it's a pretty strong bet the offense is up for the job.