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Is 2006 the Year of the Dog?

The college football preview magazines are hitting the newsstands, so it is open season in the blogosphere on premature preseason prognostications, as well.  

As other commentators have noted, Sunday Morning Quarterback practically has the market cornered on thorough post-spring forecasts---the dude gave us in-depth data on Arkansas State, for crying out loud---but just because the rest of us can't do it as well as S.M.Q. doesn't mean we won't go about it in our own slapdash and haphazard manner.  

Artist's rendering of Sunday Morning Quarterback.

Michael has taken a look at Tony Barnhart's top 25.  Orson has provided us with a PowerPoint presentation.  College Football Resource has tried his hand at listing the nation's top teams and Peter has responded.  

C.F.R. had Georgia ranked fifth.  His rationale for that lofty poll position was as follows:  

Much like the President, Georgia coach Mark Richt always pulls a rabbit out of his hat when people misunderestimate him.  I'm not enamored with the Dawgs' backs or the lines and they have yet to fix a leaky run defense... but dammit it doesn't always matter.  These Dawgs are going to go out and beat all but one and possibly two SEC foes big or small.  Freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford is a potential phenom, and towards the end of the year may have this team doing some things on offense Dawg fans have not seen from any quarterback between the hedges.  Last year was a golden opportunity to finish third or fourth in the rankings before injuries got in the way.  Coach Richt probably realizes this and may put together the scrappiest, most competitive UGA squad of his tenure.

Subsequently, C.F.R. ranked Mark Richt third among S.E.C. coaches (behind Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier), for these reasons:  
There isn't a better coach within the conference than Georgia's Mark Richt, for example, but in bowl games he's taken talented teams and lost to West Virginia in his own backyard, barely beat a bad Purdue team and barely beat an imploding Florida State team.  There's room for improvement still.

Over at Burnt Orange Nation, Peter saw it a bit differently.  As he put it:  
Georgia at #5, I'm afraid to say, is where we diverge.  With apologies to all the guys I've grown to love that love Georgia... this looks to me like a letdown year.  The questions on the offensive line spell to me:  not enough ability to actualize a dominant running game in order to compensate for quarterback weakness/newness.  Mark Richt always has a strong team, and runs a terrific program, but this doesn't like [sic.] a top five team to me.

In order to put matters into their proper context, it should be noted that C.F.R. ranks Ohio State, Southern California, Auburn, and Texas first through fourth, respectively, and he gives the nod to California, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami, and West Virginia, in that order, to round out the top 10.  

I must confess to finding certain of C.F.R.'s observations rather odd.  While claiming to be "a little biased" in favor of a coach's "ability to win outside the SEC," he states his belief that Coach Richt shows "room for improvement" in non-league outings.  Coach Richt is 20-2 in non-conference games, with both losses coming in bowl games by margins of four and three points, respectively.

While I was as embarrassed as anyone by the Bulldogs' poor performance against West Virginia, the Mountaineers finished in the top five and no credence should be given to all that "in his own backyard" business.  The claim that the 'Dawgs have some sort of home field advantage in Atlanta is as preposterous as suggesting that Ole Miss has an edge in Memphis.  If anything, the fact that the Sugar Bowl had to be moved from New Orleans hurt the Red and Black, whose focus clearly suffered because of the proximity to the comforts of home while W.V.U. was able to concentrate on its business trip.  

In any case, Mark Richt's non-conference wins include victories over No. 21 Georgia Tech in 2001, No. 16 Florida State in the 2003 Sugar Bowl, No. 12 Purdue in the 2004 Capital One Bowl, No. 17 Wisconsin in the 2005 Outback Bowl, No. 18 Boise State in 2005, and No. 20 Georgia Tech in 2005.  Those wins are in addition to victories over bowl-bound Clemson teams in the 2002 and 2003 seasons and over bowl-bound Georgia Tech teams in the 2002, 2003, and 2004 seasons.  Other S.E.C. coaches may have advantages on Mark Richt in some areas, but his record against out-of-conference opponents is not one of them.  

I have included this picture of Kristin Davis as a sorbet, to cleanse the palate.

Beyond that, I find it somewhat curious that C.F.R. is high on Georgia without being "enamored with the Dawgs' backs."  Athlon credits the Bulldogs with having the S.E.C.'s top stable of running backs.  Lindy's ranks the Red and Black R.B.s third in the league.  Despite the absence of David Greene and D.J. Shockley, The Sporting News rates Georgia's offensive backfield as the fourth best in the conference.  There are weaknesses to the 2006 'Dawgs, but the tailbacks clearly are among the squad's greatest strengths.  

Since I find fault with C.F.R.'s criticisms, then, am I prepared to accept his praise?  Actually, no.  I believe his claims that "leaky" defense "doesn't always matter" and that we may expect to see "some things on offense Dawg fans have not seen from any quarterback between the hedges" have it exactly backwards.  

For one thing, I'm pretty sure that business about "things on offense" that we haven't previously witnessed "from any quarterback between the hedges" is a bit of a backhanded compliment.  In 2005, Georgia ranked second in the conference in scoring offense, second in the conference in passing offense, third in the conference in rushing offense, third in the conference in total offense, first in the conference in pass efficiency, and first in the conference in first downs.  If you don't believe me, take it from the S.E.C. website.  

The 'Dawgs may not be fancy, but they're perfectly good offensively, as evidenced by the fact that, in two of Georgia's three losses in 2005, the Red and Black scored 30 or more points.  The one time the Bulldogs lost due to an inability to move the football, D.J. Shockley was sidelined with a knee injury.  

"It landed foul on the grass.  The players tried for a forward pass with Shockley on the sidelines in a cast."

By his own admission, C.F.R. is fond of "scheme" . . . what Orson Swindle would call "shiny things."  I'm not; I'm as interested in statistics as the next football fan, but all of my delving into the numbers is rooted in one simple premise:  

In a team sport, individual accomplishment matters only to the extent that it serves team goals.

When I am told to expect "some things on offense Dawg fans have not seen from any quarterback between the hedges," I think back not very many years at all and recall that I was sitting in the stands for something like half of all the games Georgia played when Eric Zeier was wearing silver britches, so I saw a Bulldog Q.B. set what was at the time the S.E.C. career passing record with 11,153 aerial yards.  I also saw the Bulldogs go 2-2 against Vanderbilt during that span.  

Was I watching a better offense when I saw Eric Zeier set an individual conference record or was I watching a better offense when I saw David Greene become the winningest quarterback in Division I-A history?  Zeier's offense may have been statistically superior, but Greene's leading stat, week in and week out, was a W.  

No, he didn't have the strongest arm in the world, but he was as smart a signal-caller as you'll ever see, he ran a play fake that'd bring tears to your eyes, and he lit cigars with victories the way a less accomplished man who only had money to show for his success would light them with hundred-dollar bills.

Buck Belue threw 12 touchdown passes in his senior year, but the Bulldogs were 27-3 in the games he started.  If you'd rather have Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung directing your offense, you deserve to go 2-8 . . . as Notre Dame did in the year Hornung took home what was already college football's most overrated award.  

Frankly, I don't care if we see "things on offense" we "have not seen" before.  As S.M.Q. has noted, Nebraska's offense in the early to mid-1990s was utterly predictable . . . and equally unstoppable.  

Likewise, Georgia's play-calling in the early 1980s was quite unimaginative.  The ball was handed off to Herschel 994 times in a three-year span.  During that dull, plodding, predictable period, Georgia went 33-3 overall, 18-0 in conference play, and 3-0 against Georgia Tech, with two of the three losses during those seasons coming against the eventual national champion.  I could stand to go back to being bored by that level of success.  

It was an offense so archaic, you couldn't use color film to take pictures of it . . . but, by golly, it won football games.

That having been said, I have every confidence in Matthew Stafford, who is going to be stellar . . . in 2007.  In 2006, he's a true freshman with a lot of upside, but Georgia is going to be reliant upon a stout D for much, if not all, of the season.  

The Bulldogs' defensive line will be improved and I have as much confidence in Georgia's underrated defensive backs as I do in any position group on the team.  The 2006 'Dawgs may look a lot like the 2005 Tide, struggling offensively yet keeping games close and low-scoring with rock-ribbed defense.  

By his own admission, C.F.R. has a fondness for offense---hence, his claim that Urban Meyer is the S.E.C.'s top coach "and is on his way to making the Gators great again," despite the "[i]ronic" fact that "his vaunted offense has been held back"---so it is no surprise that, if he is going to find something to like about Georgia, it would be offensive potential rather than defensive achievement, but this Bulldog squad is apt to be more of a juggernaut on D than on O, at least for the first half of the autumn.  


This brings us to Peter's assessment, which is unvarnished but not unsympathetic.  In B.O.N.'s view, "questions on the offensive line" and "quarterback weakness/newness" will create problems for the running game, which means "a letdown year" for the 'Dawgs.  

That seems pretty fair to me . . . and it says something about the quality of the program Mark Richt has built that, when Georgia doesn't look "like a top five team," that is considered a disappointment.  Of course, we are talking about a coach whose first five years on the job have produced at 52-13 record.  That puts his won-lost tally just two and a half games behind the 54-10 ledger compiled by Pete Carroll during the same span at Southern California . . . and Coach Richt did it while maintaining disciplinary standards.  

In sum, I am grateful for College Football Resource's confidence in my team, but I believe his evaluation of the Bulldogs' strengths and weaknesses to be 180 degrees off the mark, with respect to the pros as well as the cons.  Burnt Orange Nation, however, seems to have identified the pluses and minuses not just more succinctly, but more accurately.  

I hope B.O.N. is wrong and C.F.R. is right . . . but, as someone who (like Orson) is biased, knows it, and lets events dictate the drift of his thoughts, I must confess that the evidence supports the position I wish was wrong rather than the one I would prefer to be right.  

Go 'Dawgs!