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What Sort of Football Season is in Store for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2011?

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Earlier today, Senator Blutarsky meticulously set forth the reasons for optimism, pessimism, and skepticism regarding the Georgia Bulldogs’ 2011 football season, and I find it hard to believe that anyone would take serious issue with any of the Senator’s points. I, too, have resisted the siren song of springtime chatter, as I will believe the latest recapitulation of the perennial platitudes about how guys are really getting after it in the weight room with a new attitude when I see results on the field. Every year, every team talks that talk when the flowers are in bloom and the reborn world is full of boundless possibility; it is not until the autumn, when there is a nip in the air and the earth prepares to wither and hibernate for a season, that we learn who truly has the fire in the belly and the iron in the soul required to walk the walk.

There are, in short, no certain signs there for us to see; though signs there may be, we have been offered no indicators reliable enough to trust. We have been greeted with lots of positives since the new year dawned, from the hiring of new coaches to the signing of a stellar recruiting class to a lengthy run without a player arrest that stretches back to last October 11, but these plusses may add up to nothing, while the jury remains out on some changes and other changes undeniably are for the worse.

The meager tea leaves we are left to parse in the offseason tell us nothing, but the alternative to straining to glean larger meaning from the largely meaningless is to sit and wait patiently, which we all know we aren’t going to do. It falls to us, then, to wonder what to make of what is written on Twitter and said at Bulldog Club meetings, to ask whether the Liberty Bowl loss to the Central Florida Knights sent the squad into the offseason doldrums or left the team collectively with a bad taste in its mouth. Truthfully, bowl results are among the most notoriously unreliable outcomes; the loss to the Boston College Eagles to end the 2001 season had no bearing upon the Bulldogs’ ability to win 13 games and an SEC championship in 2002, while the Sugar Bowl win over the Hawaii Warriors did nothing to prevent crushing losses to the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators the following year.

Would a 2-0 start represent a dead cat bounce, or would it mean the ‘Dawgs were off to the races? Would an 0-2 opening indicate that the wheels were coming off of the wagon, or might it serve as a precursor to a run akin to that made by the Florida St. Seminoles in 1989, when the Tribe dropped their first two games yet finished 10-2, with a win over the eventual national champion Miami Hurricanes? Will kicking off the campaign with a big game pay dividends, as it did when the Red and Black opened against the Clemson Tigers in 2002 and 2003, the Boise St. Broncos in 2005, and the Oklahoma St. Cowboys in 2007, or will it represent the first stumbling block of a subpar season, as was the case when Georgia lost in Stillwater to start the 2009 campaign? Will the Bulldogs be the SEC’s biggest disappointment in 2011, or do we just need to chill?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I am given two reasons for hope, and I have two causes for concern. These, in that order, are they:

  • In the piece linked to at the outset of this posting, Senator Blutarsky quoted Todd Grantham for the proposition that, "in all seven of the team’s losses last season, the Bulldogs were leading or within one possession during the fourth quarter." Though I will repose faith in the changes to the strength and conditioning program when I see the ‘Dawgs get tougher in the fourth quarter the way they did in their heyday, I am heartened by the atypical nature of last year’s results in that regard.

    Between 2001 and 2009, Coach Richt’s teams were 73-8 in games in which they led or were tied at the half and 82-5 in games in which they led or were tied at the end of the third quarter; prior to 2010, Mark Richt-coached squads did not wilt down the stretch. Even in the star-crossed 2009 season, Georgia went 4-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. If the downward trend continues in close contests in 2011, obviously, that will represent a distressing pattern, but, for the moment, it is fair to say that history offers encouraging evidence that last year was aberrational in many ways.
  • While I share everyone else’s worries about the offense, I believe the defense is going to be much improved. Last year, Coach Grantham’s defense halted the free fall from the Willie Martinez era, and, just as the Alabama Crimson Tide improved dramatically from 2007 (Nick Saban’s first year at the Capstone, when the Tide went 6-6 in the regular season during the team’s initial autumn in the 3-4) to 2008 (when Alabama posted five more wins and sustained four fewer losses than the year before), the Georgia D should be markedly better in its second season under Coach Saban’s former defensive line coach. Defense still wins championships . . . especially in Athens, where Coach Richt’s first nine Bulldog squads went 79-9 in games in which they scored at least 18 points.
  • This brings us to the first of my causes for concern, both of which find expression in comparing behavior exhibited earlier in Mark Richt’s tenure in the Classic City to corresponding, and distinguishable, behavior demonstrated more recently. The Red and Black found themselves in similar situations at halftime of their respective games against the Auburn Tigers in 2002 and the Florida Gators in 2008. In each case, the ‘Dawgs were playing a longstanding orange-and-blue-clad conference rival in a venue outside of Athens, trailing 14-3 at the break in a game in which a win would deliver an Eastern Division championship and a shot at a whole lot more. There the similarities ended, though, because the Athenians came back to claim a stirring victory with "70 X Takeoff" in the former instance while folding like deck chairs in an embarrassing blowout in the latter.

    What differentiated those two games? In a word, leadership. Jon Stinchcomb famously gave a fiery motivational speech to the team in 2002, then he practiced what he preached when he recovered a crucial fumble for a touchdown to spark the second-half resurgence that resurrected the Red and Black’s championship chances. Where was the leadership in 2008? Where has it been since? The shortcomings of such high-profile players as Washaun Ealey, Caleb King, and Zach Mettenberger in that department have been undeniable.

    We need players to step up and fill that void. Who will take that leadership role? Ray Drew? Kwame Geathers? Ben Jones? Aaron Murray? There has been a marked lack of that kind of player accountability in recent seasons, and perhaps the dearth of offseason shenanigans attests to a change in attitudes, but someone needs to stand up and say, "Follow me." There is no lack of talent on this team; judging by the number of former Bulldogs to be found on NFL rosters over the last two decades, a lack of talent hasn’t been the problem for a very long time. The 1980 national championship team was far from the most talented Georgia team of all time, but it had leadership in spades.
  • This brings me to a point I have made before, regarding the different mindsets underlying Coach Richt’s fourth-down decisionmaking against Clemson at the start of the 2002 season and against UCF at the end of the 2010 season. I prefer the younger, bolder Coach Richt to the cautious, older Coach Richt, which is why I liked the fire of his recent remarks in Macon and I wish he hadn’t tried to put a happy face on being Righteously Indignant Richt. There’s a reason why we in the SEC won’t play football on Sundays, and I like it that Coach Richt is exhibiting a little more Hellfire and brimstone this offseason and a little less turning the other cheek. Even if he regretted it later---and Mark Richt has apologized for far less---I like the fact that he said "Hell" instead of "heck." As Curtis Armstrong said to Tom Cruise in "Risky Business," if you can’t say it, you can’t do it. I’m glad that Mark is giving ‘em Hell, but I am dismayed that he backed off from that stance somewhat. I don’t want the head coach who gave the guy in Macon a hug afterward to be the head coach who’s standing on the Sanford Stadium sideline on Saturdays this fall; just as I wanted a defensive coordinator who said "ass" in his interview, I want a head coach who says "Hell" when it’s warranted and doesn’t feel bad about it afterward.

Manic Kyle has become more skeptical as Depressive Kyle has become more hopeful. This season could be an absolute disaster or a smashing success; the autumn that opens in the Georgia Dome in September could conclude in December with an SEC Championship Game appearance in that same venue, or that same month could see Kirby Smart being introduced by Greg McGarity in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. We could also be in for a 9-3 season that ends with a win over a Big Ten team in a Sunshine State bowl game and a No. 14 final ranking that leaves everyone feeling lukewarm.

We just don’t know. For now, all we can do is sit, and wait, and search for signs we know will tell us nothing, except in retrospect; for now, all we can do is fret, and hope, and vote.

Go ‘Dawgs!