In an odd quirk of scheduling, the Tennessee Volunteers had back-to-back open dates on their slate. The Big Orange did not have to face a football team on September 29 and they did not have to face a football team on October 6. At least, that was the way it looked for much of this afternoon.
Rarely will you see a good team more totally dominated than the Classic City Canines were during the first half in Knoxville. The Vols did everything right and the 'Dawgs did everything wrong. On both sides of the ball, Tennessee always knew what Georgia was about to do and was ready to counter it, but the Red and Black were deceived on a regular basis, often to disastrous effect. Between halftime of last year's game and halftime of this year's game, U.T. outscored Georgia by a 65-9 margin.
There were bright spots, of course. Tripp Chandler played his best game of the year and Demiko Goodman reemerged after disappearing following last year's Ole Miss game. Knowshon Moreno showed occasional flashes and it was good to see Kregg Lumpkin back in the lineup, where he averaged 6.5 yards per carry. After being completely outclassed before intermission, the defense allowed only seven points in the second half.
The coaching staff's ability to make halftime adjustments was attested to by the fact that the Bulldogs began the second half with a defensive stop and scored a touchdown on the visitors' ensuing drive. When Tennessee then methodically marched down the field on its next possession, aided by a fourth-down conversion, a dropped would-be interception, and penalty yardage, to extend its lead to four touchdowns once more, though, the handwriting was on the wall.
Mark Richt has achieved such a stellar road record because his teams regularly are well prepared. Today, there was no question which team was more ready to play and it wasn't the Red and Black.
From 2000 to 2003, the Bulldogs won four in a row over the Volunteers. From 2004 to 2007, the Big Orange took three out of four from the Red and Black.
In 1988, Georgia opened the season with a win over Tennessee between the hedges in the first game played after I became a University of Georgia undergraduate. Later that fall, the 'Dawgs defeated the Gators in Jacksonville in the first game played following my 20th birthday. I have been practicing law for ten years and I will turn 39 next month . . . but I have not seen my alma mater beat both Tennessee and Florida in the same season since Vince Dooley's final year on the Sanford Stadium sideline. I will not see it this autumn, either.
This was Georgia's 19th loss in Mark Richt's six-and-a-half-year tenure with the Bulldogs. In his first 11 setbacks, the Red and Black D surrendered 14, 24, 24, 20, 20, 17, 16, 34, 19, 24, and 14 points, respectively. The only honest-to-goodness skunking suffered by the 'Dawgs during that period came in the 2003 S.E.C. championship game against the eventual national champs.
Since the 2005 Cocktail Party, though, Mark Richt has lost eight games, in which the opposing team has scored 31, 38, 51, 24, 21, 24, 16, and 35 points in succession. While the defense's performance against South Carolina earlier this autumn looks better and better as the Gamecocks continue to play impressively, it appears clear that it was an aberrational outlier rather than an encouraging indicator.
Since the 2005 homecoming win over Arkansas, the Bulldogs have gone 16-9 overall, 8-8 in conference play, and 2-7 against the S.E.C. East. Against divisional foes, the 'Dawgs have lost six in a row.
I understand that there are no easy Saturdays in the S.E.C. East. Florida is the defending national champion. Tennessee rebounded from a disappointing 2005 campaign to win nine regular-season games and make it to a New Year's Day bowl game last year. Vanderbilt has been markedly more competitive under Bobby Johnson, Kentucky just last Thursday saw what had been a 10-1 run snapped, and Steve Spurrier's division-leading South Carolina squad has won eight of its last nine games.
I want to be careful not to overstate the point. Mark Richt is the right man to lead this program. I do not presume to have easy answers and I do not know what specific changes need to be made.
What I know, though, is that Georgia went to Knoxville and got embarrassed. The Bulldogs didn't just lose . . . they got embarrassed. I will assume my share of the responsibility---the two times I have declared game co-captains (against South Carolina and Tennessee), the Red and Black have lost; you may rest assured that there will be one and only one honorary game captain from now on---but there were many more problems with such fundamental matters as blocking, tackling, discipline, coaching, and execution.
A spark is absent from this team. There was a fire, an energy, to the Bulldogs and their style of play that has not been seen since the win over L.S.U. in the S.E.C. championship game two years and a lifetime ago. Mark Richt lit a flame under this program when he arrived from Tallahassee; we saw it in mat drills, in second-half shutouts, and in finishing the drill.
That flame began to falter when David Greene, David Pollack, and Brian VanGorder left Athens and it began to flicker after D.J. Shockley departed. Where is that flame now? Who has it? Where did it go? How do we get it back?
Make no mistake about it; this team has talent and this team showed character and heart by continuing to fight in the second half---indeed, by fighting harder in the last two quarters than they had in the first two---even after the game was out of reach. For that, the team and the coaches deserve credit. However, a top 15 team should never be that far down against an unranked opponent . . . not even on the road, not even when that opponent is coming off of a bye week, not even when that opponent's coaches are battling to keep their jobs, not even if Vishnu is on vacation like she was last weekend.
Something is wrong, maybe even badly wrong, in Bulldog Nation. Mark Richt is the man to get it fixed, but, six games into the season, youth no longer is an excuse. It is time to correct the problems that ail the Georgia football team . . . now.