Tennessee Volunteers 45, Georgia Bulldogs 19: Hitting Rock Bottom on Rocky Top

It was one thing to lose to the Oklahoma St. Cowboys. The Pokes are a rising program and it was a big deal for OSU to have the Georgia Bulldogs travel to Stillwater for a game.

It was one thing to lose to the LSU Tigers. The Bayou Bengals are a perennial SEC powerhouse and Louisiana State pulled out a last-second win in a hard-fought battle between the hedges.

It would have been one thing to have gone 7-5 and lost to five bowl-bound teams that ended up ranked in the top 25 at the end of the year.

However, even though the Tennessee Volunteers boast a storied history and have many things going for them, the current incarnation of the Big Orange is awful. The Vols are a terrible football team. Simply stated, they suck.

And we just lost to them . . . badly. They beat us worse than they beat the Ohio Bobcats.

They aren’t going to a bowl game. They aren’t going to beat anyone all year who’s any good. They aren’t going to look competent offensively against any team that’s the least bit decent. They’re coached by the class clown of the conference, who may recruit the players with whom the guy who replaces him is going to win, but who isn’t going anywhere.

And we just lost to them . . . badly. I haven’t seen an all-around effort that atrocious from a Georgia football team since the 1999 Auburn game.

Although I have read the fanposts, I haven’t seen the comment thread since the last comment I left early in the day, so some of this may be repetitive. If so, I apologize, but we are at a critical juncture in the history of our football program and it is important to assess our situation clearly and honestly. This, as I see it, is our situation:

Mark Richt is still the right man to lead this program and any calls for his ouster are nothing short of sheer lunacy. Even with today’s loss, Coach Richt is 85-25. His .773 career winning percentage is 58 points higher than Vince Dooley’s .715 and 158 points higher than Wally Butts’s .615. No head coach in Georgia history with more than one season on the job has won at a clip equal to Coach Richt. Anyone who thinks there’s a better head coach out there that Damon Evans could go out and get, I want the person saying so to name names. I’d be willing to bet that any coach you could name who even arguably would be an upgrade is someone who is entrenched enough in his present position that he wouldn’t leave his current billet. In any case, though, MaconDawg is absolutely right. Please bear in mind that there is a silver lining to the fact that this was Georgia’s worst effort in a decade; it means Georgia has been playing at a higher level throughout the Mark Richt era.

Nevertheless, it is necessary for changes to be made if the Bulldogs are to resume achieving at the high level at which they performed for the first five years of the Mark Richt era in Athens. "Business as usual" does not cut it in college football, particularly at the elite level. Change is a constant; look at how much Gus Malzahn has improved the Auburn Tigers’ offense, Bobby Petrino has improved the Arkansas Razorbacks’ offense, and Paul Johnson has improved the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets’ offense. Look at how Urban Meyer has continued to tweak his innovative offense during his years in Gainesville in an ongoing effort to improve what already was an effective scheme. It is not an attack on Coach Richt to say that doing things the way they have always been done will not continue to win over the long haul; even Bear Bryant found it necessary to adapt to changes in the game, which led him to adopt the wishbone in the early 1970s. How’d that work out for him?

Many of the gains made during the successful run from 2002 to 2007 have been squandered during subsequent seasons. In that six-year stretch, Georgia won two SEC championships, appeared in three conference title games, finished no worse than tied for first place in the Eastern Division four times, attended three Sugar Bowls, and finished in the AP top ten five times, including final rankings of No. 3 in 2002 and No. 2 in 2007. Cracks began appearing in the armor late in the 2005 campaign, became glaringly evident in the midst of the 2006 season, and reared their ugly head anew in the early going in 2007. The late glory run in the latter autumn papered over some of those problems, but embarrassing efforts in lopsided losses to the Alabama Crimson Tide and to the Florida Gators in 2008 and to Tennessee today made it clear that the Bulldogs simply are not competing at the elite level any longer. Quite frankly, the Red and Black’s last eleven games---during which the ‘Dawgs have gone 6-5, have not won impressively even once, have been routed by the Gators and the Volunteers, have struggled to win close games over weak teams, and have given up points in bunches---have looked like a throwback to the Ray Goff era.

Staff continuity has ceased to be a strength and has become instead a source of systemic complacency. In his fine book Top Dawg: Mark Richt and the Revival of Georgia Football, Rob Suggs made the good point that bringing stability to the Georgia program was one of Coach Richt’s early positive contributions. The Bulldogs ran defensive coordinators and offensive line coaches through a revolving door throughout the 1990s, which did not help the program. However, there is a point at which stability can lead to stagnation. Georgia has the same defensive ends coach, defensive line coach, quarterbacks coach, secondary coach, and strength and conditioning coach in Coach Richt’s ninth year that Georgia had in Coach Richt’s first year. In some cases, that consistency has been a good thing, but not all change is bad. The switches from John Eason to Tony Ball at receivers coach and from Neil Callaway to Stacy Searels at offensive line coach certainly appear to have been upgrades. If longstanding coaches’ established methods no longer are yielding acceptable results---and I think it is undeniable that they no longer are---changes must be made, either to the methods or to the men.

Georgia needs a special teams coach who is not also a position coach. The kicking game is simply too important a part of modern football to make special teams an afterthought. The kicking game once was a reliable asset of the Georgia football team; now, it is erratic on its best day. I understand that there is a limit to how many assistant coaches a team may hire. (I think that’s absolutely asinine---if we’re willing to pay for three dozen assistant coaches, we ought to be allowed to do so---but I get that such a limitation exists.) There are ways of shuffling staff assignments to make room for a dedicated special teams coach. Maybe, instead of having a defensive line coach and a defensive ends coach, we could have one guy coach the entire front four. Maybe, instead of having a receivers coach and a tight ends coach, we could have one guy coach all the guys charged with the duty of starting at the line of scrimmage and running forward to catch the ball. Maybe the head coach could assume direct responsibility for the special teams. Urban Meyer has taken such a hands-on approach to special teams; how’s that working out for him?

A program with Georgia’s institutional advantages has no excuses for playing this poorly. The Gators have become the league’s premiere program due to a variety of factors. They are a large university with a solid academic reputation in a populous, football-crazed state. They have a well-managed athletic department that is awash in cash, has top-notch facilities, frequently has its teams on television, and wins consistently in multiple sports. Their scenic campus is located in a setting with a pleasant climate and their student body contains many uncommonly attractive young women. Few programs in the country have all of those benefits; the Texas Longhorns and the USC Trojans share all of those advantages . . . and so does Georgia. Florida, Southern California, and Texas never lose 45-19, even to good teams, and certainly not to marginal opponents. Every program is going to lose a game sooner or later; programs with this much going for them should never lose a game like this to anyone, much less to a team as sorry as Tennessee is right now.

It simply is no longer possible to defend the proposition that Willie Martinez should be retained as the defensive coordinator of the Georgia Bulldogs. There remains room for argument about Mike Bobo as an offensive coordinator---in fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of the people who think Mark Richt should take over the play-calling duties anew were the same people who thought he should give up the play-calling duties three years ago---but this latest bump in the road has to have jolted everyone off of the Willie Martinez bandwagon. For those who still need convincing, though, here is the tale of the tape: Georgia allowed 31 points to Auburn in 2005, 38 points to West Virginia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, 51 points to Tennessee in 2006, 35 points to Tennessee in 2007, 30 points to Florida in 2007, 34 points to Troy in 2007, 41 points to Alabama in 2008, 38 points to LSU in 2008, 49 points to Florida in 2008, 38 points to Kentucky in 2008, 45 points to Georgia Tech in 2008, 37 points to South Carolina in 2009, 41 points to Arkansas in 2009, and 45 points to Tennessee in 2009. Eight of Georgia’s last 15 opponents have scored 37 or more points on the Red and Black. Coach Martinez is a good man, but opposing offenses have figured him out, and, if a quarterback as crummy as Jonathan Crompton can complete 20 of 27 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns against your defense, you’re simply not delivering at a level that entitles you to keep your job in the SEC.

Win or lose, our team is still our team, first, last, and always. The young men who put on their silver britches and their red helmets every Saturday work hard, play hard, and want to win even more than we want them to win. The coaches whose careers are spent attempting to equip these young men for victory are devoting numerous hours to preparing their team. That does not mean that every player has earned the right to play, or that every coach has demonstrated sufficient competence to remain on the payroll, but it does mean that there is a right way and a wrong way of expressing our displeasure. Criticisms, even strongly-worded ones, are fair game, but our team is still our team, and we should be true to our school, even when addressing its faults and urging it to make changes when changes are required.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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