There’s a special kind of joy that comes from watching your fellow college football fans hoisted with their own proverbial pigskin petards. As I’ve watched Gene Chizik’s staff leave town, and Tennessee fans start compiling lists of who they’d like to replace Derek Dooley, and Florida fans pining for an offense led by . . .Kerwin Bell, I’ve emitted a series of Lundquistian chortles. Because I was under the impression that all of those folks were supposed to outlast Mark Richt. Everyone from Alabama recruiters to Vanderbilt football fans (all 23 of them) assured themselves over the summer that Mark Richt would be out of Athens by New Years.
Then a funny thing happened.10 funny things, actually. 10 wins in a row including workmanlike dispatches of the Mississippi schools, a rare nighttime victory in Neyland Stadium, a hard-fought, come from behind Cocktail Party triumph, and another win over Auburn. Georgia then held the top team in the land not only scoreless, but without a first down in the first half of the SEC Championship Game. Like almost every other team on the Bayou Bengals’ schedule, the ‘Dawgs yielded in the second half, but not before making the statement that they had just as much business getting run over by Les Miles’ team of merry student-werewolves as anyone else.
Does Mark Richt need to win the Outback Bowl to save his job? Clearly not. A 10 win season that included wins over every major rival on the slate took care of that. But a loss to the Michigan State Spartans would increase grumbling going into the offseason and embolden the faction of fans and broken clock commentators for whom the answer is always "but Georgia didn’t play anybody." You know, except the Auburn and Georgia Tech teams which were both ranked until we unceremoniously unranked them.
Mark Richt has been, by and large, one of the more successful bowl coaches in America, posting a .700 winning percentage in 10 bowl appearances. Confine that analysis to the traditional "New Year’s Day" bowls and his record goes to 7-1. The Bulldogs have lost three bowl games in Mark Richt’s decade-plus in the Classic City: the Music City Bowl to Boston College in his inaugural campaign, the 2006 Sugar Bowl to West Virginia following an SEC Championship, and last year’s outright debacle in the Liberty Bowl to Central Florida.
The common denominator in those last two is fairly clear: the Bulldogs played down to what they perceived to be the level of their competition. Unfortunately, they grossly underestimated where that level was. West Virginia came in focused and prepared and jumped on the ‘Dawgs, whose comeback bid came up just short. Last year’s squad looked for all the world as if they would rather have been anywhere but Memphis. To be clear, if this Georgia team prepares the way they should in the lead up to the Outback Bowl I like their chances. The fact that we’re playing a top 15 team that no one in his right mind could take lightly actually gives me some comfort. Because historically under Coach Richt we’ve won these games. If we were in fact playing Western Michigan in the Detroit Area Chamber of Commerce Abandoned Tire Plant Bowl, I might actually be a little more on edge.
Which is not a prediction that Georgia wins this game. Michigan State has an excellent team. A very physical team, as anyone who watched them this season can attest. I acknowledge being an SEC homer. I am very much a son of the region and, if we’re being entirely honest, watching the teams we’ve played with tooth and nail in conference play win 5 (soon to be 6) BCS national titles in a row hasn’t done much to convince me that SEC football isn’t the best being played on Saturdays. That being said, Michigan State is built the way successful SEC teams, and in fact successful football teams at all levels, have been. They have a stingy defense. A quarterback who does not lose the game. And big play skill position guys.
Playing a team like Michigan State in a bowl game puts Georgia in the same position Indiana Jones, Short Round and Miriam were in after jumping from the plane in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. Looking back at what they’ve survived, Harrison Ford’s character remarks, "See? That wasn’t so bad!" Then he saw the roaring waterfall in front of him. This Outback Bowl is similarly fraught with peril. But the rewards for victory could be pretty handsome as well.
While a loss would certainly put a damper on the offseason, a win is likely to have just the opposite effect. One of the perennial problems with preseason polls is their systematic over-reliance on results from the prior season’s bowl games. That’s how you end up with Ole Miss as a trendy dark horse national championship pick. It’s how you end up with Georgia slotted as a preseason #1 in spite of several key personnel losses.
A solid victory in the Outback over a solid Spartan squad could very well propel the Bulldogs to a preseason top 5 ranking. Let that sink in for a few seconds. After the early loss to Boise State such a start to 2012 seemed inconceivable. Nevertheless that’s where we are. Does that buy Mark Richt lifetime tenure in Athens? No. The only thing more disasterous for a college football coach than engendering low expectations is failing to reach high ones. If Georgia finishes 6-7 next season (which, unless Aaron Murray undergoes a right arm amputation, Kwame Geathers and Jarvis Jones join the Hare Krishnas, and Malcolm Mitchell goes on tour with Joni Mitchell won’t happen) I have no doubt that Mark Richt will be in trouble. But if Derek Dooley, Will Muschamp, or a host of other coaches go 6-7, they’ll be looking for new employment. Who’s on the hot seat now, gang?
Don’t forget to show support for Mark Richt by voting him as the 2011 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year at www.coachoftheyear.com