2012 Review/2013 Preview: Assessing Mark Richt's Place in Georgia Bulldogs Football History (Part II)

Orange? Really? Did it have to be orange?!?! - Scott Cunningham

Mark Richt's twelfth season as the Georgia head coach saw the Bulldogs fall just five yards short of an SEC title and a probable national championship. How does the Red and Black skipper compare to Wally Butts and Vince Dooley at the same point in their careers?

In our last installment, we looked at how Mark Richt’s records against minor and infrequent rivals during his first twelve seasons (2001-2012) compared to the ledgers compiled by Wally Butts and Vince Dooley during the first dozen years of their careers (1939-1950 and 1964-1975, respectively). Now, though, we turn to the big boys to see how the Georgia Bulldogs fared during the opening twelve autumns of the tenures of their three longest-serving football coaches:

v. Alabama:
Butts: 4-5 (.444)
Dooley: 1-3 (.250)
Richt: 3-2 (.600)

Which Georgia coach caught the Crimson Tide at the toughest time overall? Coach Butts confronted ‘Bama while Frank Thomas and Red Drew were strolling the sideline in Tuscaloosa, and, during that period, the Tide attended five major bowl games, but they also suffered through four five- or six-win seasons. Coach Dooley faced Bear Bryant while he was taking Alabama to nine major bowl games, but the Tide experienced a brief downcycle in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s before the wishbone was introduced at the Capstone. Finally, Coach Richt’s time in Athens has coincided with a period during which the Crimson Tide have posted seven double-digit win totals yet also endured five years of six regular-season wins or fewer. All three men squared off with Alabama during the Tide’s highs and relative lows, and, while Coach Dooley caught the brunt of it, he also carded by far the worst record against ‘Bama. A winning record against the Red Elephants is nothing at which to sneeze, though it would have been nice had that pass not been tipped and that record instead been 4-1.

v. Tennessee:
Butts: 0-0 (.000)
Dooley: 1-2-1 (.375)
Richt: 8-4 (.667)

Coach Dooley’s early confrontations with Doug Dickey’s and Bill Battle’s Volunteers easily came against the more consistently difficult Big Orange outfits, as his first four meetings with Tennessee were against teams that went a combined 35-10-1. However, Coach Richt’s clashes with the Vols haven’t all been against clubs in the doldrums; the Big Orange have attended three SEC Championship Games during his tenure, and Coach Richt’s 8-4 ledger against Tennessee includes a 2-2 mark against Volunteer squads that won ten or more games. The bottom line is that better than 40 per cent of all the wins the Bulldogs have ever registered against Tennessee have come on Coach Richt’s watch.

v. Clemson:
Butts: 4-0 (1.000)
Dooley: 9-1 (.900)
Richt: 2-0 (1.000)

Except when John Heisman and Danny Ford were coaching the Fort Hill Felines---and neither of them called Clemson home during the 36 seasons covered by this survey period---Georgia has fairly well dominated the Tigers in the won-lost ledger, if not always on the field of play, and the records compiled by Coach Butts, Coach Dooley, and Coach Richt during the first twelve years of their respective periods of service reflect this. I hope that trend continues for the next couple of seasons.

v. Georgia Tech:
Butts: 6-6 (.500)
Dooley: 9-3 (.750)
Richt: 11-1 (.917)

Coach Richt is the only one of the three Georgia skippers in question for whom Bobby Dodd was the name on the stadium rather than the coach on the sideline, so some allowance must be made for his latter-day success against the Yellow Jackets. Though the Engineers have attended three ACC Championship Games in the last seven seasons, Coach Richt has faced just two Golden Tornado clubs who finished with fewer than five losses, and only one that closed out the campaign with fewer than four setbacks. Still, only one of the Georgia Tech teams Coach Richt has faced has finished below .500---four of Coach Butts’s first twelve games against the Yellow Jackets, and four of Coach Dooley’s, were against Georgia Tech teams that concluded the season with a losing ledger---and beating your in-state rival better than 90 per cent of the time over a dozen seasons is pretty good.

v. South Carolina:
Butts: 3-0 (1.000)
Dooley: 8-0-1 (.944)
Richt: 7-5 (.583)

Clearly, Coach Richt has faced the most consistently good Gamecock program in history. The Garnet and Black won more than five games just once during Coach Butts’s first twelve seasons, posting eight losing records during that span. South Carolina finished above .500 just four times during Coach Dooley’s first dozen years at Georgia, and the Gamecocks never won more than seven games in any of those seasons. The Garnet and Black, however, have won nine or more games in four of the last twelve seasons, going 4-4 in bowl games during that span. Much of South Carolina’s success under Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier has come at the Bulldogs’ expense, and snapping the first three-game losing streak Georgia has ever suffered at the Gamecocks’ hands is the most important priority for the 2013 season. This is the only series in which the balance of power has shifted unfavorably from where it stood when Coach Richt took over in the Classic City.

v. Auburn:
Butts: 8-2-1 (.773)
Dooley: 6-6 (.500)
Richt: 8-4 (.667)

Let’s get this out of the way from the outset: I hate Auburn. Yes, I know the Plainsmen stink. I don’t care. A win over Auburn is a win over Auburn. For what it’s worth, though, Coach Butts’s first dozen seasons in Athens coincided with a stretch during which the Tigers finished at or below .500 nine times and 6-4-1 twice, whereas Coach Dooley’s initial twelve campaigns came while Auburn had as many seasons at or below .500 as seasons with nine or more wins (four apiece). Coach Richt, meanwhile, has crossed paths with the Plainsmen during a period in which they have won nine or more games six times and gone undefeated twice. The bottom line is that Coach Richt has posted a record against Auburn almost as good as Coach Butts’s during a much stronger era in the Tigers’ history. Auburna delenda est.

v. Florida:
Butts: 9-2 (.818)
Dooley: 7-4-1 (.625)
Richt: 4-8 (.333)

While Coach Richt gets the benefit of some doubts here---Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer unquestionably are the two most successful coaches in the Gators’ football history---the fact that he went 1-2 against Ron Zook undermines any excuses. Sure, the Sunshine State Saurians of the last 23 seasons bear little resemblance to the more inconsistent Florida clubs of the preceding eight and a half decades, but 4-8 is a pretty poor showing against a rival the Bulldogs used to own. Things are looking up, however; Georgia has won four of the last nine, three of the last six, and two in a row in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, and winless Will Muschamp will head to Jacksonville next autumn dogged by questions about his ability finally to emerge victorious by the St. John’s River. The pressure is all on the Gators, for a change, and 80 years of history suggests that we stand at the dawn of a two-decade period of Georgia dominance over Florida.

Conclusion

Even with the attachment of all appropriate caveats, Coach Richt has equaled or exceeded the historical norm for Georgia head football coaches in their first twelve seasons against all but two rivals, impressively setting often unparalleled standards for success against the Auburn Tigers, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and the Tennessee Volunteers. This counts for quite a lot.

Unfortunately, the two teams against whom Coach Richt has failed to perform up to the level of his predecessors, the Florida Gators and the South Carolina Gamecocks, also happen to be the Red and Black’s two most important Eastern Division rivals in the modern era. Since Coach Richt left Tallahassee, the SEC East has been represented in the SEC Championship Game by Georgia five times, Florida and Tennessee three times apiece, and South Carolina once, but the Volunteers have not appeared in Atlanta in early December since 2007, the Gamecocks have contended strongly for three straight division titles, and the Gators proved surprisingly resurgent in 2012. For the foreseeable future, the chief challenges to Bulldog hegemony in the East will come from Columbia and Gainesville, which happen also to be home to the two teams against whom Coach Richt has struggled most consistently.

To some extent, of course, this is a bit of a tautology: Coach Richt has struggled against these teams because they have been successful, and these teams have been successful because he has struggled against them. Whatever the antecedent cause, though, the fact remains: Coach Richt must beat Florida and South Carolina in order to remain the top team in the division, and, just as the former series appears to be going the Athenians’ way for the first time in a generation, the latter reached literally unprecedented levels of futility last season.

Though the Bulldogs have lost both to the Gamecocks and to the Gators in just one of the last eleven seasons, Georgia has not beaten Florida and South Carolina in the same autumn since 2004. In many years, beating one of them will suffice to claim the division crown, provided it’s the right one, but, after this year’s national championship near-miss, I’m greedy: I want us to beat every last opponent on the schedule. Coach Richt is getting close to achieving that admittedly lofty objective---even Nick Saban has only one undefeated season in 17 years as a college head coach---but he isn’t quite there yet.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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