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The Decline and Fall of the Bulldog Nation?

I am a big David Lynch fan.

I'm pretty conservative personally, politically, and theologically, but I have a reasonable appreciation for the innovative when it comes to art. William Faulkner is my favorite author. Salvador Dali is one of my favorite painters. David Lynch is my favorite director.

Once, when "Blue Velvet" was being shown at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, I got together a large group of folks and we all went to see it together. (Some enterprising soul had the fine idea of running a special on Pabst Blue Ribbon at the show.) One of the couples I invited along came up to me during intermission, apologetically told me the film was too intense for them, and left. To each his own, I suppose.

Reality is just a crutch for people who can't handle David Lynch.

I even wrote an essay on the director and his penchant for offbeat twists on the happy ending, partly in retort to a piece by David Foster Wallace. Writing prior to his attainment of genuine fame in 1996, Wallace authored a review (of sorts) of "Lost Highway," which later was collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I saw matters somewhat differently, and my addressing of the subject appeared in a 1997 issue of the "Twin Peaks"-centered magazine Wrapped in Plastic. If memory serves, it was the first thing I ever had published longer than a letter to the editor or a newspaper column.

So, yeah, I'm a David Lynch fan.

"Blue Velvet" is about a young man from the suburbs in his first year of college, who was portrayed by an actor named Kyle. The movie came out in September 1986, the month and year I started college. Fortunately, there were no further similarities between the film's action and my life, but the film still struck a chord with me. (The star of the movie later played characters who were linked romantically to love interests portrayed by Sherilyn Fenn, Heather Graham, Kristin Davis, and Marcia Cross, so I generally have approved of his cinematic decisionmaking, but I still think messing with Dennis Hopper is a bad idea.)

Why am I writing about "Blue Velvet" on a football weblog? Bear with me for a minute and I'll get back to you on that.

While patiently awaiting an explanation of this odd tangent, the extremely suave Dean Stockwell contemplates suing Billy Donovan for stealing his look.

There are, as Bulldog Nation has been made acutely aware, real problems with the Georgia football program. We do not know whether this is a temporary downcycle or part of a larger downward trend. While I have tried to keep matters in perspective, there are certain disconcerting facts that cannot be gainsaid and, although I have every confidence in Damon Evans and in Mark Richt, there is real doubt whether merely staying the course will suffice to get the Red and Black back where they need to be.

I would like to think that these are simple problems with easy solutions. I would like to think that injuries are solely to blame. I would like to think that youth is all that ails the 'Dawgs. What if it is something deeper, more ingrained and more insidious, though?

Here is where David Lynch comes back into the picture. "Blue Velvet" was, and for more than 20 years has remained, one of the most brilliant, illuminating, and genuinely disturbing things I've ever seen . . . and into that same category must now be placed Sunday Morning Quarterback's recent posting in which the sage of the college football blogosphere chronicled the almost eerie parallels between the U.S.C. Trojans of 2003 to 2007 and the Miami Hurricanes of 2000 to 2004.

When charting the two teams' gradual decline from the heights of gridiron excellence as entropy increased with all the inevitability of the second law of thermodynamics, SMQ offered this unflinching assessment:

USC's "descent," as it were, exactly mirrors Miami's. Miami came storming back into the national picture in 2000 with a young team, like USC in 2003, that lost once and controversially finished outside the BCS championship game; in Miami's case, the 'Canes beat Florida State and finished the regular season second in both human polls, but lost its championship spot to FSU based on computers, where USC finished 2003 number one in both human polls but lost its chance at the Sugar Bowl to freshly-trounced Oklahoma. Off those respective disappointments, more seasoned teams thoroughly dominated in undefeated title runs (in 2001 for Miami, 2004 for USC) that ended in lopsided blowouts in the mythical championship game and no questions (sorry Auburn) about the national overlord at the end of the season. As heavy, undefeated favorites in 2002 and 2005, respectively, both programs were shocked in epic championship finishes, and bid adieu to the stars that had taken them there.

You can start looking for hints of decay in those final championship seasons - Miami had to come from behind and watch a field goal sail wide to win at Florida State in 2002, USC had to rally from an 18-point halftime deficit at Arizona State in 2005 - but it gets really interesting when you begin to think of John David Booty as Brock Berlin, especially as they left the same high school as the top-rated quarterback in the country two years apart, waited their turn behind a championship-winning all-American, and inherited a balanced system seemingly stocked with top shelf talent and primed for instant success. In 2003, Berlin's first season as a starter, Miami wasn't exactly cruising with disturbingly close wins over Florida, West Virginia and Florida State, but it was ranked second and on track for another title shot when it was ambushed in a turnover-heavy upset at Virginia Tech. The 'Canes later lost another shocker by four as a double digit favorite at Tennessee. In 2006, Booty's first season as a starter, USC wasn't exactly cruising with disturbingly close wins over Washington State, Washington and Arizona State, but it was ranked third and on track for another title shot when it was ambushed in a turnover-heavy upset at Oregon State. The Trojans later lost another shocker by four as a double-digit favorite at UCLA.

It seems obvious now Miami was on its way to ruin, but it didn't then: the 'Canes beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl and began 2004 an absurdly talented team still ranked in the top five. It remained there until a stunning loss at North Carolina in October as a 22-point favorite. If there's a doppelganger to USC's loss to Stanford, there it is - on the Miami curve, SC is in 2004 and another year and a half or so from true collapse.

SMQ prudently adds measured disclaimers and makes it clear that he "only mean[s] to say that our perceptions are shaped by the recent past more than the present, and we typically hold on to them far too long in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, until something truly drastic happens to change them." However, he recognizes common characteristics in the slow falling off of such dominant, ostensibly dynastic powers as Florida State, Miami (Florida), Nebraska, and now, perhaps, Southern California:
All of those deflated teams suffered massive personnel departures, especially at quarterback, and have yet to recover.

One m[o]re parallel: coaching departures. Miami lost Butch Davis, survived among the elite for a while, then eventually fell flat and had to jettison in-house successor Larry Coker amidst relative ruin. Nebraska lost Tom Osborne, survived among the elite for a while, then eventually fell flat and had to jettison in-house successor Frank Solich amidst relative ruin. Relative ruin came much more quickly for Florida State, which fell flat the first year after losing longtime assistants Mark Richt and Chuck Amato and eventually had to jettison in-house offensive successor Jeff Bowden. USC's staff below Pete Carroll has changed dramatically: Norm Chow and Lane Kiffin have moved on to the NFL (for...wait for successor Steve Sarkisian) and Carroll himself gave up coordinating responsibilities before 2006 for ex-Idaho coach Nick Holt.

Were the Bulldogs 6-0, or even 5-1 without having been blown out on the road in a game in which they did not look like they even belonged, I might find SMQ's expert exegesis fascinating but not troubling, as I would have purely an intellectual interest in the subject instead of an intense emotional investment.

There are, however, disturbing implications to all of this. For how long can consistent excellence be sustained in college football? Hauling in top-tier recruits year after year didn't keep U.S.C. from losing to Stanford, nor did it stop Florida from losing to Auburn. Even among the best of the best, trends eventually end.

That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.

From 2002 to 2005, Georgia won 44 football games, three division titles, and two S.E.C. championships. Inherent in the eligibility limitations in intercollegiate athletics is the rapid turnover of personnel; absent special circumstances, by 2006, no Bulldog who took the field during the 2002 conference championship season was any longer wearing silver britches on the Sanford Stadium sideline.

Tradition never graduates, but what if the magic leaves campus when a special set of seniors departs? It has happened before. Vince Dooley's Georgia squads went 43-4-1 and captured three conference crowns and a national championship between 1980 and 1983, but whatever residue of that charmed era remained in 1984 was exhausted after Kevin Butler kicked his 60-yard field goal to beat Clemson in September; by November, the Bulldogs were finding themselves on the wrong end of a 27-0 final score in Jacksonville as they fell to a Florida team that had not beaten them in six straight seasons.

The same held true for Wally Butts's best class of athletes, many of whose careers were interrupted by stints in the service in 1943 and 1944. When not busy beating back the forces of totalitarianism, however, those Bulldogs were going 20-2-1 in 1941 and 1942 before coming back to campus and posting a 20-2 record in 1945 and 1946. During those four noncontiguous campaigns, the Red and Black captured two S.E.C. titles, two national championships, and victories in the Oil, Orange, Rose, and Sugar Bowls.

In 1947, the season following Georgia's first modern four-year glory run, the 'Dawgs lost four games. In 1984, the season following Georgia's second modern four-year glory run, the 'Dawgs lost four games. In 2006, the season following Georgia's most recent four-year glory run, the 'Dawgs lost four games. Honestly, I can't believe I didn't see it coming.

In the grand scheme of things, this was essentially the same as Joe Cox to Martrez Milner.

Are four great years all we are allowed in succession? From 1947 to 1958, the Red and Black lost three or more games eleven times in a dozen years and posted seven seasons of .500 or worse. From 1984 to 1996, the Classic City Canines lost three or more games 12 times in 13 years and posted five seasons of .500 or worse. Is it unavoidable that Georgia will drop back with the rest of the pack?

It does not seem that this is so, at least not necessarily. Between 2000 and 2006, just three programs accounted for six of the seven Southeastern Conference championships won, as two each were claimed by Florida (2000 and 2006), Georgia (2002 and 2005), and Louisiana State (2001 and 2003).

The Bayou Bengals have won ten or more games in four of the last six seasons under the guidance of two different coaches, and L.S.U. currently is the consensus No. 1 team in the nation. The Gators have won ten or more games in nine of the last 14 seasons under the guidance of two different coaches, despite a three-year downcycle under an intervening coach sandwiched in between them. If it can be done at Florida and Louisiana State, which have many natural advantages but do not possess any of them that Georgia cannot likewise claim, it can be done in Athens, as well.

Moreover, there is no doubt that Mark Richt is the man to do so. After all, he came from the program that defined excellence for an astonishingly lengthy period. From 1987 to 2000, the Seminoles won ten or more games in 14 consecutive seasons, never losing more than twice in any one autumn. Coach Richt has proven that this winning attitude carried over from Tallahassee, even during the Bulldogs' recent struggles. As I noted in a comment thread earlier this week:

[W]hile I know we all are---and ought to be---exceedingly dissatisfied with the course of recent events, we should not be blind to events around us.

During the last 25 games, the 'Dawgs have gone 16-9 overall and 2-7 against the S.E.C. East . . . but, during that same span, Georgia has beaten L.S.U. by 20 points in the S.E.C. championship game, shut out South Carolina on the road, hammered Auburn by 22 points on the Plains, defeated the Hokies in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, won two hard-fought battles over Georgia Tech, handed Oklahoma State a 35-14 setback in the season opener, won in Tuscaloosa for just the second time in school history, and hung 45 points on an Ole Miss team that nearly upset Florida.

There are real problems that need to be solved and tough decisions that need to be made, but there are at least 90 Division I-A programs that would love to have the luxury of considering this a downcycle.

Permit me to take another stab at putting this into perspective. If Urban Meyer goes 39-13 in his next 52 games overall and posts a 23-11 record in his next 34 conference contests, will he be doing pretty well? Many would consider a .750 winning percentage overall and a .677 winning percentage in S.E.C. play doing all right, if not exceptionally well.

If Urban Meyer goes 39-13 in his next 52 games, he will have a record of 65-19 . . . identical to Mark Richt's.

If Urban Meyer goes 23-11 in his next 34 S.E.C. games, he will have a conference record of 38-17 . . . identical to Mark Richt's.

Two and a half years into his tenure in Gainesville, Coach Meyer is the toast of the town. He has gone 26-6 overall and 15-6 in S.E.C. play, posting a 13-1 record in his second season.

Two and a half years into his tenure in Athens, Coach Richt had gone 26-6 overall and 16-5 in S.E.C. play, posting a 13-1 record in his second season.

Yes, U.C.L.A. beat U.S.C. by a [13]-9 margin in the Trojans' 2006 season-ender and Ohio State beat Michigan by a 14-9 margin in the Buckeyes' 2002 season-ender, as a result of which---and only as a result of which---Urban Meyer got to play for a national title and Mark Richt didn't.

Other than that, though, Urban Meyer is today right where Mark Richt was at the midpoint of the 2003 season. If Coach Meyer sticks around long enough to make it to the halfway mark of his seventh season with the Gators---a big "if" on which I would not be fool enough to place money---he would not be doing badly to be doing as well then as Mark Richt is doing right now.

There are issues that need addressing. Perhaps---perhaps---there are coaches that need replacing. Mark Richt, however, is the best thing to have happened to the Georgia program since Herschel Walker became a New Jersey General. We should take great care not to forget that fact.

That said, we must be attentive to all indicators, lest we witness the 'Dawgs declining in maddening increments---from 13-1 in 2002 to 11-3 in 2003; from 10-3 in 2005 to 9-4 in 2006---when something could have been done to arrest the steady descent into averageness. SMQ offers one intriguing insight when he opines that promotions from within to replace significant contributors to the coaching staff may be among the culprits, as evidenced by the transitions at Florida State (from Mark Richt to Jeff Bowden) and Nebraska (from Tom Osborne to Frank Solich), among other places.

The two best defensive coordinators in University of Georgia history were brought in from elsewhere: Erk Russell came over from Auburn with Coach Dooley in 1964 and Brian VanGorder was hired away from Western Illinois, of all places. Willie Martinez, by contrast, was promoted from within after a four-year stint as Georgia's secondary coach.

Bloodied but unbowed.

Internal hires can work out, of course. I generally am pleased with Mike Bobo's performance as the Bulldogs' offensive coordinator. Sometimes, though, bold changes are required. Coach Richt, who hired Tony Ball away from Virginia Tech in 2006 and brought in Stacy Searels as offensive line coach in 2007, has offered indications that he appreciates this occasional need. If entropy increases in a closed system, combat it by going outside the system.

Is stagnation part of the problem? Is new blood needed among Mark Richt's assistant coaches? Is it time to pay Will Muschamp whatever it would take to bring him home to his alma mater? Is it time to consider plucking the next Brian VanGorder from obscurity? Since success in the S.E.C. is built on defense, Georgia simply cannot afford to have sloppy Saturdays like the one we witnessed in Knoxville.

I do not presume to have all, or perhaps even any, of the answers, but Sunday Morning Quarterback's recent examination of the decline of college football powers struck a nerve, reawakening worries so deep-seated and disturbing that not even being described by Doug Gillett with terms I am too unhip even to repeat lessened my sense of unease.

SMQ's thoughtful analysis is as riveting and unsettling as "Blue Velvet." Whatever downward trajectory the Georgia program has taken is neither unavoidable nor irreversible. However, whatever ails us must be addressed, lest the frightening ease with which the ordinary gave way to the nightmarish in Knoxville last weekend become a trend rather than an aberration and a second consecutive season be permitted to descend into the Lynchian.

Go 'Dawgs!