Nobody can deny that Mark Richt has, in the main, been a splendid coach for Georgia. Over 13 2/3 seasons, he has averaged 9.7 victories. He should go no worse than 9-3 in this one. He has taken the Bulldogs to two SEC titles and five conference championship games.
Now for the not-insubstantial “but”: He didn’t lead Georgia to a BCS title game, and the comprehensive loss to reeling Florida makes it difficult to imagine any circumstances that would send a two-loss team from the unimposing SEC East to the four-team playoff. (For that to happen, the Bulldogs would have to beat Auburn and win the SEC title — and all but three teams ranked ahead of the Bulldogs would have to lose.)
In Year 14, Richt is essentially how we’d have remembered Vince Dooley had Herschel Walker signed with Clemson on Easter Sunday 1980 — a consistent coach capable of producing good teams and even conference champions but never quite a national power. Difference was, Herschel signed with Georgia and Dooley rode him to one national title, three SEC championships and 23 wins in 26 games.
To say that Richt hasn’t had a Herschel misses the point. In the history of college football, there has been only one. If we’re to believe recruiting rankings, Richt has had a greater depth of talent than any Georgia coach ever. His Bulldogs were 13-1 in 2002, 11-2 in 2007 and 12-2 in 2012, narrowly missing a BCS title appearance each time. But they did miss.
Even with Todd Gurley playing a full season, this team — new quarterback, new defensive coordinator — wouldn’t have fit a championship profile. Still, on the morning of Nov. 1, the Bulldogs were listed by the Bovada sports book as the second-favorite (behind Alabama, forever No. 1) to claim the national title. With South Carolina and Florida wilting and Tennessee failing to launch, the East was worse than anyone imagined, and Georgia had drawn as its West road game the only bad team (Arkansas) in that stacked division.
Had it beaten the second-worst Florida team in 35 years, Georgia would have entered its final four regular-season games positioned to play for the SEC title and maybe more. The Bulldogs lost to Florida 38-20 and scored with three seconds remaining to render it that close. It had been more than a calendar year since the Gators won a league game by more than six points. Against Georgia, a team that couldn’t move the ball or score points rushed for 418 yards and scored 31 unanswered.
Richt had the better team and lost. The Bulldogs should have been primed but were not. In Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this correspondent noted that, when certain Georgia fans aver that their team will never win a national title under Richt, such a loss is what they mean. Early Sunday, ESPN Insider Travis Haney posted this: “Is Mark Richt underachieving at Georgia?”
If we go by those recruiting rankings, the answer is yes, but here we step onto a slippery slope. Tennessee fans weren’t thrilled that Philip Fulmer — who’d won the 1998 BCS title — was no longer winning big, and he was shoved aside in 2008. The Vols have since had three head coaches and one winning season. (It’s a sign of how far Tennessee has fallen that Saturday’s overtime defeat of South Carolina was hailed as a breakthrough.)
There’s no chance of Georgia firing Richt: His record is far too good for that to happen. But if some Georgia fans — and we stress “some” — got their wish and he retired tomorrow, would the next man do better? Some of Haney’s unnamed sources say he would, but how’s Charlie Strong faring after replacing Mack Brown at Texas? How long did Ole Miss, which fired David Cutcliffe (now winning at Duke) after the 2004 season, need to find a coach half as good?
Do I believe Richt, for as well as he has done, could have done a bit better? Yes. Do I think the next man, whoever he is and whenever he arrives, will do more? Not necessarily. Winning championships is hard, and you need to be lucky. My issue with Richt is that there remain too many games like Saturday’s, lead-balloon games where luck has little to do with it.
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