In the interests of full disclosure, I should state from the outset that Spears is an old friend of mine, to whom I am connected through the Phi Kappa Literary Society. As such, we have been known to debate with one another strictly for debate’s sake, and Spears, who was among the sharpest knives in a drawer that contained no dull blades, has been known to present persuasively cogent points with which he disagrees, as all good debaters do. He also has been known to do this in the presence of people he knows disagree with the points he is making even more vehemently than he does, solely for the sake of compelling them to offer a response he knows his listener to be constitutionally incapable of withholding. (That may sound like a criticism of Spears; I assure you that it is a compliment, and that he takes it as such.)
I do not know for certain, but it would not surprise me to learn, that Spears had such an objective in mind when he set forth the case that the best days of the Mark Richt era were not as glorious as we would like to believe. In any event, his argument warrants a retort, which I now offer; viz.:
Spears contends that, during the heyday of the Mark Richt era, the Bulldogs’ losses largely were embarrassments and their victories primarily were hollow. This, I believe, involves some cherry-picking on his part. Consider:
- In 2002, Georgia defeated a ten-win Alabama team on the road, a nine-win Auburn team on the road, and a nine-win Arkansas team at a neutral site, the latter of whom went down to a 30-3 defeat.
- In 2003, Georgia’s only losses were to the eventual national champion, and to the team that beat the eventual national champion. Among the Red and Black’s victims was a ten-win Tennessee squad whom the Bulldogs beat in Knoxville by a 41-14 margin.
- In 2004, Georgia’s only losses were to Auburn and Tennessee teams who finished the season ranked second and thirteenth, respectively, in the final AP poll. The Bulldogs beat three teams that finished ranked in the postseason coaches’ poll, the highest-ranked of whom (No. 16 LSU) fell between the hedges by a 45-16 margin.
- In 2005, Georgia’s three losses were by a combined eight points against the teams ranked fifth, twelfth, and fourteenth in the final sportswriters’ poll. Along the way, the Bulldogs defeated eventual No. 6 Louisiana State by 20 points after opening the autumn with a 35-point thrashing of a rising Boise State outfit that has gone 52-4 since the start of the 2006 campaign.
As for Spears’s claim that Coach Richt’s 7-2 record in bowl games contains only valueless victories, I would respond that six of those seven postseason triumphs were wins over teams ranked 18th (Michigan State in 2008), 16th (Florida State in 2002 and Wisconsin in 2004), 14th (Virginia Tech in 2006), 12th (Purdue in 2003), and 10th (Hawaii in 2008) in the final regular-season Associated Press poll. Of course those teams all fell in the final postseason rankings; they fell because Georgia beat them.
From 2001 through 2009, Coach Richt’s Red and Black squads were 28-19 against teams ranked in the AP top 25 at the time of the game. That ain’t bad for a program that went 85-115-8 against opponents ranked by the sportswriters from 1936 to 2009. That’s right . . . Mark Richt has delivered almost one-third (32.9%) of all the victories over ranked opponents in Georgia history, while having overseen under one-sixth (16.5%) of the losses.
Let us suppose, though, that Spears is right, and that the Bulldogs were overrated even in Coach Richt’s best seasons. Does that mean the Red and Black’s 44-9 record between 2002 and 2005 fails to measure up to the Athenians’ 43-4-1 ledger between 1980 and 1983? Not hardly; when viewed through the same lens Spears holds up to Mark Richt’s best four-year stretch, here is how Vince Dooley’s best four-year run compares:
Between 1980 and 1983, Georgia faced a total of eleven teams who were ranked by the Associated Press on the day of the game. Despite being the higher-ranked team in nine of those contests, the Bulldogs were 8-3 in those outings, losing twice to lower-ranked opponents. In Mark Richt’s four best consecutive seasons, the Bulldogs met 22 ranked opponents---double the number faced by Coach Dooley’s ‘Dawgs in their best days---and had a winning record as the lower-ranked team.
None of Georgia’s regular-season opponents from the 1980 national championship campaign finished with a top 20 ranking in the final AP poll. In 1981, the Bulldogs faced two teams ranked in the season-ending sportswriters’ poll; Georgia lost to both. By far the most impressive autumn of that four-season stretch---1983, when the ‘Dawgs went 3-1-1 against teams finishing in the year-end top 20---was the one autumn of the four in which Georgia did not win the SEC championship. Could it be that the Bulldogs profited from a down SEC in the first three years of the decade?
To answer that question, we must confront this one: Georgia went 18-0 in conference play between 1980 and 1982, but against whom? In 1980, the Bulldogs beat Tennessee (5-6), Ole Miss (3-8), Vanderbilt (2-9), Kentucky (3-8), Florida (8-4), and Auburn (5-6), but did not face LSU (7-4), Mississippi State (9-3), or Alabama (10-2). In 1981, the Bulldogs beat Tennessee (8-4), Ole Miss (4-6-1), Vanderbilt (4-7), Kentucky (3-8), Florida (7-5), and Auburn (5-6), but did not face Mississippi State (8-4) or Alabama (9-2-1). In 1982, the Bulldogs beat Mississippi State (5-6), Ole Miss (4-7), Vanderbilt (8-4), Kentucky (0-10-1), Florida (8-4), and Auburn (9-3), but did not face Alabama (8-4) or LSU (8-3-1). Under Mark Richt, of course, Georgia could not duck the top teams in the SEC, thanks to an eight-game regular-season conference schedule and the SEC Championship Game.
Does that mean it is fair to question the achievements of the Red and Black during the early 1980s? No, it does not, for several reasons: rankings on the day of the game, particularly early in the season, may reflect preconceived notions rather than realities; tough non-conference opponents such as Clemson and the teams the ‘Dawgs faced in major bowl games must be taken into account when assessing Georgia’s strength of schedule; it is reasonable to presume that many of the SEC teams who finished with good records and whom Georgia did not face were able to attain those records, in part, because they did not have to play the Bulldogs.
The point is that no warrior is without cracks in his armor, and no achievement comes without caveats attached. The nearer our approach to perfection in any endeavor, the more glaring errors become for their comparative rarity. So it is with Vince Dooley’s four-year run from 1980 to 1983, and so it is with Mark Richt’s four-year run from 2002 to 2005. Those periods were, in fact, as glorious as we recall; it is only when we dedicate ourselves to getting nitpicky in pursuit of imperfections we may magnify to justify our latter-day doubts that we fail to see the splendid forest for the flawed trees.