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Steady as She Goes: The Georgia Bulldogs' Wild Ride on an Even Keel

It's impossible to overstate how important the SEC's best conference narrative was to keeping the streak alive. Keeping that up required big non-conference wins, a sterling bowl record in most years, and everyone being competitive at some point. Between 2006 and 2013, every member of the conference won at least nine games in a season (except for Kentucky, which won eight games twice). UK, the Mississippi schools, and Vandy were the only ones not to win 10 games at least once in that span, and that includes the newcomers.

Everyone pulled some weight in keeping that story about the SEC being great alive.

Team Speed Kills (January 7, 2014)

We all agree that many things need to be fixed in the Classic City, yet it is equally clear that the Red and Black are not a total train wreck; the undeniable truth of both of these assertions caused the above observation from Year2 to resonate with me. Everyone pulled some weight in keeping that story about the SEC being great alive. Yes, but some animals are more equal than others, so how much, by whom, and how often? Aren’t ten of the Southeastern Conference teams languishing in the wake of the four programs who have combined for nine BCS National Championship Game appearances in the last eight years?

In the 13 seasons (2001-2013) of Mark Richt’s tenure in Athens, which program carded the most seasons of eight or more wins, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Auburn Tigers, the Florida Gators, the Georgia Bulldogs, or the LSU Tigers? It was Louisiana State (with 13), but the Red and Black were the runners-up (with 12), ahead of Alabama (8), Auburn (10), and Florida (10).

During that same span, which marquee program most often won nine or more games? Once again, the top spot belongs to the Bayou Bengals (11), yet still the Bulldogs are in second place (9), with Alabama (8), Auburn (7), and Florida (7) all trailing the Athenians.

What about campaigns of at least ten victories? The honors continue to go to LSU (9), but Alabama and Georgia are tied for the silver medal (8 apiece), well out in front of Florida (5) and Auburn (4).

When it comes to seasons of eleven or more wins, though, the Red and Black fall back to the pack (with 4), behind Louisiana State (6) and Alabama (5), and tied with Auburn and Florida.

The Bulldogs’ slide becomes more pronounced when we look at autumns yielding a dozen or more victories: Georgia brings up the rear (with 2), behind the Tide (4) and the Gators and the two sets of Tigers (3 each). Alabama and Auburn had the best seasons during that period (14-0 in 2009 and 2010, respectively), and the Bulldogs’ 13-1 ledger (in 2002) was equalled by Florida (three times) and LSU (twice). Georgia’s second-best season (12-2 in 2012) matched the third-best seasons carded by Auburn (in 2013) and LSU (in 2007), but those two 12-2 Tiger teams captured conference crowns and national title game berths.

The flipside, though, has been a marked dearth of truly subpar seasons. Although the Bayou Bengals have not finished a season with a record worse than 8-5 in the last 13 years (LSU posted that mark twice, in 2002 and again in 2008), Georgia has been the league’s second-best upper-echelon program at avoiding complete collapses; since Coach Richt’s arrival in Athens, the Bulldogs have finished with six or more losses just once (in 2010), while Auburn and Florida have done it twice each, and Alabama has done it three times.

Likewise, in that 13-season span, Georgia has posted just one losing record (6-7 in 2010). The Gators also have just one season below .500 during that period, but the Sunshine State Saurians hit rock bottom with a 4-8 record in 2013. Alabama and Auburn both posted losing records twice, bottoming out at 4-9 in 2003 and 3-9 in 2012, respectively.

In short, in the Mark Richt era, Georgia’s peaks have been lower than those of our upper-tier conference coevals, but our valleys also have been higher. We have not had to endure nine-loss seasons like Alabama and Auburn, yet neither have we been privileged to enjoy 14-win campaigns the way the Tide and the Plainsmen have. We are better on average---Georgia has won 9.7 games per year since 2001, as compared to Alabama’s 9.4, Florida’s 9.2, and Auburn’s 8.9---but this largely is because we less frequently stray very far from the mean. From 2001 to 2013, the Red and Black’s combined record against Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and Louisiana State has been 20-19.

Such stability has kept Georgia from falling completely off the map, the way Alabama, Auburn, and Florida all unmistakably have from time to time in recent seasons; that is why, when the Bulldogs were hit with injuries akin to those that stranded the Gators at 4-8 in 2013, or the Missouri Tigers at 5-7 last year, Georgia weathered the storm well enough to win eight games and make it to a New Year’s Day bowl rather than remaining home for the holidays. Nevertheless, there also have been seasons of stagnation, resulting in near-misses even in such stellar years as 2002, 2007, and 2012. For other programs, it’s feast or famine; for us, we always know whence our next meal will come, but we rarely leave the table fully sated.

Although the Red and Black have been too successful too consistently for too long under Mark Richt for any reasonable person to call the Bulldogs merely average, there is a clear tendency for Georgia to hover around the midpoint among top-shelf SEC programs, neither rising too high nor falling too far. For all the wild emotional swings recent seasons have produced, they have not generated similarly variable margins; in the Classic City Canines’ last 40 games, eleven of their 30 victories, and seven of their ten losses, have been by single-digit differentials. The line is a fine one, and we are hewing to it, both for good and for ill, more closely than virtually any other quality conference club.

I am so uncertain how I feel about those figures that I would not---I could not---presume to tell you how you ought to assess them. If you are inclined to view our program as complacent, lacking in accountability, overly enamored of the financial bottom line, and unwilling to make the bold moves that are needed to be more than merely "good enough", these data provide evidence for your position. If, on the other hand, you are inclined to place Mark Richt in the same category with Bobby Bowden, Mack Brown, Vince Dooley, Tom Osborne, and Joe Paterno, men who consistently contended, almost never missed by much, and eventually caught the breaks that made the difference between being always good and being occasionally great, these data provide evidence for your position, as well.

I have no frame of reference for a nine-loss season, as Georgia has not endured one in my lifetime, or ever; likewise, I have no frame of reference for a 14-win season, as Georgia has not enjoyed one in my lifetime, or ever. However, I was in Sanford Stadium, and sitting next to my son, to witness the longest touchdown pass ever thrown by the Georgia Bulldogs, against the North Texas Mean Green, and I was at EverBank Field, and sitting next to my son, to witness the longest touchdown pass ever thrown against the Georgia Bulldogs, by the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and I know that, at the end of the day, Nebraska and North Texas both wrapped up 9-4 seasons with January 1 bowl wins, and I cannot say for sure that the euphoria of the first was offset by the anguish of the second to a markedly greater or lesser degree than the thrill of one season of fewer than two losses in the last 23 years was offset by the agony of one season of more than six losses during the same span of almost a quarter-century. If this season has left a bad taste in the mouth of every denizen of Bulldog Nation, it is for the reason expressed in Revelation 3:16.

The much more erratic orbits of the programs in Auburn and Gainesville and Tuscaloosa, whose ellipses carry them careening between Gus Malzahn and Urban Meyer and Nick Saban at their apex and Gene Chizik and Will Muschamp and Mike Shula at their nadir, vacillate explosively between the extremes embodied in the 2013 campaigns crafted by one orange-and-blue-clad coach crying "BOOM!" from the sideline in Lee County, Ala., and by another orange-and-blue-clad coach crying "BOOM!" from the sideline in Alachua County, Fla., so those teams repeatedly beat paths back and forth between the mansion and the outhouse while we watch them pass us on their way up, and on their way down, all as we experience an emotional roller coaster on a ride whose climbs and plunges are nowhere near as precipitous either as we presume ours to be or as those of our fellows actually are.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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