I'm supposed to be covering a baseball game tonight, but, dadgum it, Georgia lost to Winthrop, so I'll face the Diamond Dogs' Tuesday evening setback at a later date. In the meantime, in case you didn't see the announcement (O.K., the announcements), I was on EDSBS Live tonight to discuss Georgia's national title prospects.
I am grateful to Orson and Peter for the opportunity to talk about the 'Dawgs and, if you didn't get the chance to hear it live, please follow the link and listen to me being grilled. Despite the fact that I was given ample rope with which to hang myself, I had extensive notes upon the subject and I did not get to all of them---hey, I am college football's most verbose blogger---so I'd like to share a few observations to explain . . . why I think Georgia will win the national title.
There are, of course, the obvious reasons: the Red and Black have 15 starters back from a team that finished the year ranked No. 2 in the nation, they have gone 14-2 in their last 16 games, and they are led by Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, who are backed up by Logan Gray and Caleb King.
Moreover, Mark Richt clearly has grown into the job. He is a better coach now than he was in his first five or six years and he was the most successful coach in Georgia history in those first few years.
Yeah, we call him Coach Mark Richt.
Yes, the 'Dawgs face a difficult schedule, but they get one significant break: as Paul Westerdawg pointed out, none of the teams on Georgia's schedule have an open date the week before facing the Bulldogs. Beyond that, the difficult schedule is a plus for several reasons:
1. It promotes offseason focus. Under Coach Richt, Georgia has always performed better in the years in which the Bulldogs have a legitimate early-season out-of-conference game, because it forces the team to prepare more in spring and fall practice. In 2001, 2004, and 2006, the Classic City Canines faced no serious non-conference opponents in August or September. Those years produced no conference championships, no division titles, and no bowls better than the Outback, and the 'Dawgs finished those seasons ranked outside the top 20 twice.
In 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007, however, Georgia had early-season tests against Clemson (twice), Boise State, and an Oklahoma State squad some Orson Swindles I could name picked to win the Big 12. These opponents caused the team to be focused and those seasons produced two S.E.C. titles, three S.E.C. championship game appearances, four first-place finishes in the division, three Sugar Bowl appearances, two Sugar Bowl victories, and four top 10 finishes, including a No. 3 finish and a No. 2 finish. The presence of Arizona State on the slate will make the team concentrate.
2. The schedule will earn the 'Dawgs favorable attention. Maybe they should or shouldn't matter, but matter the computers and the poll voters do. The computer rankings will like Georgia's strength of schedule and, by traveling outside the South for first time in more than 40 years, Georgia will get national media attention and have the opportunity to impress the poll voters, especially guys who don't think of Georgia as a national power.
Southern California played Auburn in 2003 . . . and won the national title. Southern California played Virginia Tech in 2004 . . . and won the national title. Texas played Ohio State in 2005 . . . and won the national title. Louisiana State played Virginia Tech in 2007 . . . and won the national title. That kind of game is what springboards a national title run; playing nothing but patsies on your non-conference slate is what gets you Auburned.
3. The tough slate gives Georgia a margin for error. We saw this with L.S.U. last year, when the rough road the Bayou Bengals had to travel, both in and out of conference, allowed the Fighting Tigers to overcome the sting of two losses. While I don't believe a two-loss team will make into this year's national championship game, the Red and Black will face a schedule that includes defending Pac-10 co-champion Arizona State on the road, defending national champion L.S.U. on the road, Auburn on the road, Florida at Jacksonville, and a home slate featuring Tennessee, Alabama, defending M.A.C. champion Central Michigan, and Georgia Tech. If Georgia gets through that schedule with a 12-1 record and one of the twelve wins is in the S.E.C. championship game, I think Georgia gets into the title tilt ahead of any other one-loss conference champion except U.S.C. and even gets in ahead of an unbeaten Big East champion. Fair or unfair, that's the way I think it will work.
Yes, the Bulldogs have to travel to Baton Rouge, the only S.E.C. venue in which Mark Richt has coached but never won. I give all the credit in the world to the Bayou Bengal program and the team's fans, but I believe the 2003 S.E.C. championship game is for Mark Richt what the 1966 Georgia-Florida game was for Steve Spurrier. Since that contest---the only true beatdown a Mark Richt-coached team has ever endured except last year's Tennessee game---Georgia has taken on L.S.U. twice in what were supposed to be competitive match-ups.
Both games were beatdowns. Georgia beat Louisiana State 45-16 in 2004 and 34-14 in 2005. While I don't expect such a lopsided contest this time, the Fighting Tigers will have Coach Richt's undivided attention. In addition, there is the fact that Georgia is 6-1 versus defending national champions since 1965.
Oh, all right, I'll admit it: Pat Hodgson's knees were down.
I quoted that stat in January 2007 and spent the next ten months telling anyone who would listen that Georgia would beat defending national champion Florida the following fall . . . and I was right.
Ultimately, if he keeps after it, a quality head coach who produces consistent victories will get that one special player who fits his system perfectly or performs at a different level, and that's what makes a team a national champion. Consider:
Bobby Bowden won ten or eleven games a year for six straight years, then he got Charlie Ward, went 12-1, and won a national title. Tom Osborne consistently won nine, ten, or eleven games a year until he got Lawrence Phillips, went 13-0, and won a national title.
Steve Spurrier likewise consistently won nine, ten, or eleven games a year until he got Danny Wuerffel (who was perfect for his offense), went 12-1, and won a national title. Mack Brown won ten or eleven games every year for four straight years, then he got Vince Young, went 13-0, and won a national title.
You have to give the devil his due . . . literally.
To some extent, the same thing even applies to Vince Dooley. Aside from one bad year in 1977, Georgia's conference records from 1975 to 1979 were 5-1, 5-1, 5-0-1, and 5-1, then the Bulldogs got Herschel Walker, went 6-0, 6-0, and 6-0 in the league from 1980 to 1982, and won three S.E.C. championships and one national title.
Mark Richt is at that level. In the last six seasons, his Bulldog teams have gone 13-1, 11-3, 10-2, 10-3, 9-4, and 11-2. The pattern suggests that he will lead the Red and Black to a national championship with the emergence of Knowshon Moreno.
Once again, I am grateful to Orson and Peter for having me on the show and I appreciated getting the opportunity to defend Georgia. As always, your thoughts go in the comments below.