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Grading the Georgia Bulldogs' 2008 Football Season

Matt. Does a Big Ten also-ran in the Ex-Citrus Bowl even qualify as a consolation prize for Georgia? Or is UGA's season just a crater after getting pantsed by Georgia Tech, no matter what?

Ten wins (assuming a win over MSU, whose defense has been ripped on numerous occasions) with a slew of injuries sounds like a fine year to me. Georgia fans ... they do not readily agree.

Holly. Georgia Tech on its own, maybe not a crater. Georgia Tech and an impending Knowshon departure? Yeah, that might do it.

(Matt Hinton and Holly Anderson, Dr. Saturday)

Let us leave aside for now the question of whether Knowshon Rockwell Moreno is N.F.L.-bound; we will know the answer to that one soon enough. Sticking strictly to what happened on the field in 2008, do we in Bulldog Nation have any business feeling as dour as we (or, at least, I) do in the wake of the campaign just concluded? Given the rash of injuries (including the loss of two starting left tackles and our best defensive lineman), was it, as Dr. Saturday says, "a fine year"?

I take the position that it was not, and, while I know the Doc meant no offense, I believe it says something about the popular perception of the Red and Black that the question even would be raised. No one would ask whether Florida, Ohio State, or Texas fans ought to be disappointed by a three-loss season and no conference crown in an autumn in which a national championship game berth was anticipated; it would be taken as a given that they would be and should be dejected at such a result.

After the Gators won a national championship in football in 2006 which was bookended by back-to-back N.C.A.A. tournament titles, there was fear expressed in Bulldog Nation that the Saurians were about to dominate the league. I took issue with that assertion, and my position was bolstered by the following year’s result in Jacksonville.

Then came 2008, with its lofty preseason expectations, its lopsided loss on Duval Street, and its embarrassing culmination in the final home game. If the Gators had suffered exactly the same injuries the Bulldogs suffered this season---meaning, of course, that all of their skill position players remained healthy throughout the fall---and, instead of making it into the national championship game, they had lost badly to a Western Division opponent, gotten blown out in the Cocktail Party, and been beaten by Florida State to end up in the bowl formerly known as you-can’t-spell-"Citrus"-without-U-T, would anyone anywhere call that "a fine year"? Not on your life.

I respect the fact that Doug Gillett views the glass as half-full, but I agree with Damon Evans that Georgia should be judged alongside its peer institutions. By that standard, 2008 was a woefully dispiriting year for Bulldog football. I agree with the maxim that things are never either as good as they seem or as bad as they seem, but the season just concluded gives real cause for concern that the program slid backwards, not just from a preseason No. 1 ranking that now seems like a cruel joke, but to the late 1990s (when blowout losses to the Gators and close losses to the Yellow Jackets were the norm) or even the early 1990s (when shootouts were standard and the ‘Dawgs often came out on the short end of high-scoring games).

At the end of the 2005 campaign, it was clear that Georgia and Louisiana State were the top two teams in the Southeastern Conference. In the three years since, the Red and Black have not attended a single S.E.C. championship game, while Florida has won two conference crowns and is about to play for its second national championship in a three-year span, L.S.U. has won league and national titles, and Alabama has resumed its historic place among the conference and national elite.

In 2008, for the first time in the Mark Richt era, Georgia seemed to be losing ground. That perception is being perpetuated as we enter the offseason. The Bayou Bengals, following a brief downcycle, have found the quarterback and made the coaching staff changes to place themselves back among the S.E.C.’s upper echelon. Rumored or reported assistant coach acquisitions not only by L.S.U. (John Chavis), but also by Auburn (Gus Malzahn and Trooper Taylor) and Tennessee (Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron) represent positive developments for those annual Georgia rivals, as well.

Yes, Coach Richt managed to keep Rodney Garner and Stacy Searels in the fold, but all of Georgia’s hopes (including the fervent wish that Moreno and Matthew Stafford return for another year) are based on holding the line rather than rooted in getting better. Merely not regressing (or not regressing further) is not synonymous with progress; when your rivals all are improving, standing still is tantamount to losing ground.

Three years ago, Georgia was no worse than the second-best team in the conference, and, given the Bulldogs’ lopsided wins over the other contender for the top spot in 2004 and 2005, the Classic City Canines had a compelling case for being the top team in the country’s toughest conference. Today, the Red and Black clearly are behind Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana State, and Georgia’s argument for being the No. 4 team in the league presently holds water only because Ole Miss was not among the Western Division foes the ‘Dawgs faced in 2008.

I have great faith in Coach Richt based upon past performance, but changes must be made if we are to stop the slide, reverse the trend, and begin again to ascend. If we do not get moving anew, we will be left behind; we already appear to have been lapped by the parvenu program to the south of us, and why? The Gators have a wealth of institutional advantages, including a devoted fan base, excellent facilities, a compatible climate, a natural nearby recruiting base, extensive financial resources, a proven head coach, a forward-thinking athletic director, regular television exposure, a strong conference affiliation, and a run of success in recent years.

Those characteristics give Florida a built-in edge over all but a handful of programs in the country . . . but Georgia has every one of those advantages, and, whereas the Gators have a winning tradition dating back to the early 1990s, the Red and Black have a winning tradition dating back to the early 1890s. There is absolutely no excuse for what has happened in Jacksonville over the last 19 years, much less for what happened there last November 1.

Was 2008 "a fine year"? With all due respect to Matt, Holly, and Doug, no, it wasn’t. Hell, no, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close. The win over Michigan State took an absolute disaster and turned it into a mitigated disaster. I’m not the least bit satisfied with the season and I will not be satisfied with any subsequent seasons until the Bulldogs get back where they belong. Falling from No. 1 in the country before Georgia Southern to No. 2 in the state after Georgia Tech is and always will be utterly unacceptable. Losses sometimes happen, and there is no dishonor in falling to a superior opponent, but Georgia should never encounter three superior opponents in any single regular-season schedule, and failing even to show up in big games invariably is inexcusable.

Georgia went into the 2002 Auburn game needing to beat a longstanding orange-and-blue-clad rival on a field in that opponent’s home state to claim a division crown and open the door for much more. The Bulldogs trailed 14-3 at halftime, but team leaders voiced their discontent in the locker room and capable coaches made effective adjustments at intermission. The Red and Black came back for a stirring win to propel them to an S.E.C. title, a Sugar Bowl victory, and a No. 3 final ranking.

The identical scenario unfolded in 2008, when Georgia went into the Florida game needing to beat a longstanding orange-and-blue-clad rival on a field in that opponent’s home state to claim a division crown and open the door for much more. The Bulldogs once again trailed 14-3 at halftime. Where was the leadership? Where was the coaching? They were in the other locker room.

When a program reasonably expects to end the year in the Promised Land, no season in which the team wanders blithely back into the desert can be counted a success. By no reasonable measure was this "a fine year" and Georgia will have something to prove in 2009. The Classic City Canines lost much of the respect they spent the previous six or seven years earning, and deservedly so. The Bulldogs will have to break out the hobnailed boot, if not 70 X Takeoff, to get back to where they were one year ago.

There are 244 days remaining until the Oklahoma State game and the Georgia Bulldogs will spend Thursday night watching the national championship game instead of playing in it. It’s time for finishing the drill to stop being a slogan and go back to being a way of playing. First snap. Last snap. Every snap.

Go ‘Dawgs.