Yesterday, when I asked whether Gary Patterson really represented an upgrade over Mark Richt, the ensuing discussion included an examination of the critical question surrounding all of these conversations; namely, how many games does Coach Richt have to win in 2011 to keep his job for 2012?
I have been saying for a while now that there are three benchmarks by which the Georgia Bulldogs’ 2011 campaign will be judged. These are they:
- Win nine regular-season games
- Win the SEC East
- Beat the Florida Gators
My surmise, which I repeated as recently as last Wednesday’s radio interview, has been that, if the Bulldogs accomplish at least two of those three objectives, Mark Richt will return in 2012; if they don’t, he won’t.
That, though, was before Caleb King was declared academically ineligible for the 2011 season, a development for which Coach Richt cannot be blamed. Clearly, Coach Richt tried to send King a wake-up call by suspending him for the Liberty Bowl over academic failings which did not render him ineligible by NCAA standards, and it ought to be a point in Coach Richt’s favor that he did the right thing regarding Washaun Ealey, even while knowing King was academically at risk. The loss of our top two returning tailbacks prevents me from sharing the optimism of some Georgia fans, but, since I called upon Coach Richt to be more bold, I’m not going to hold it against him that he has taken a stand in favor of standards, particularly since it has produced a much more encouraging offseason, one highlighted by a nine-month stretch without a player arrest.
The question then becomes, to what extent is Coach Richt entitled to a mulligan by virtue of the losses of Ealey and King as the Red and Black prepare for probably the country’s toughest two-game opening stretch against the Boise St. Broncos and the South Carolina Gamecocks? Is the math altered at all by the recent change in circumstances, and, if so, by how much?
Suppose, for instance, that Isaiah Crowell takes a couple of games to find his feet, inasmuch as he is a true freshman and he will face a pair of daunting defensive fronts on the season’s first two Saturdays, and, consequently, Georgia stumbles to an 0-2 start in a pair of competitive games. Crowell then begins to come into his own, leading the ‘Dawgs to an 8-2 run down the stretch, culminating in a New Year’s Day bowl game against a Big Ten team in the Sunshine State.
Will that be enough to save Mark Richt’s job? Should it be? If that scenario plays out, how much would it matter whether the Auburn Tigers, Florida Gators, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and Tennessee Volunteers were among the "8" or among the "2"? Is a win over Florida plus a loss to Georgia Tech better or worse than a loss to Florida plus a win over Georgia Tech? How important will, or should, the outcome of the bowl game be?
It isn’t as though we’ve never fired a head coach after an 8-4 season; that, in fact, is how Mark Richt got this job. However, Jim Donnan’s 2000 team was expected to win the SEC East and contend for the national championship, and it didn’t come close to doing either, whereas expectations for the 2011 Bulldogs necessarily have been ratcheted down due to unavoidable offseason attrition.
Then again, Mark Richt essentially had in 2008 the season Jim Donnan had in 2000, falling from preseason national title hopeful to second-tier team, both in the division and in the state, and the returns have been diminishing ever since. Coach Donnan never played for an SEC championship, but he never had a losing season after his first one, either. Is 8-4 in 2011 a sign of progress, or is it too little, too late?
Does it matter how Georgia loses the games it loses? Is a comeback that falls just short different from a fourth-quarter collapse? Is another overtime loss in Jacksonville an indication that the gap is narrowing or proof that we just can’t get over the hump in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party? Is it better if the ‘Dawgs are losing games by scores of 10-7 instead of 34-31?
I wish I could say that I have those answers, but I’m not so sure I do. I keep looking at those three benchmarks, and I keep wondering to what extent any or all of them have been rendered unattainable or unrealistic by Caleb King’s academic reversals. Surely, we should know what we have in Isaiah Crowell by the time we get to the Gateway City, so a win over Florida should be roughly as possible now as it was before. Does King’s departure render the Boise State game so much less winnable that nine victories are appreciably more improbable? Does his departure render the South Carolina game so much less winnable that a division crown is dramatically more unlikely?
It seems like those first two games, already the toughest on the schedule, just got that much tougher, but, given the Bulldogs’ thinness on the offensive line, in the defensive secondary, and (now) at tailback, ought we to be more worried about the end of the schedule than the beginning? Just a handful of key injuries could be all that stands between this team and absolute disaster, and it isn’t as though the injury excuse was adequate to save Ray Goff when Robert Edwards and Mike Bobo were lost for the season in 1995. In any event, as the list of all that reasonably might go wrong lengthens, the chances that none of them will worsen, and our hopes decrease commensurately.
At the end of the day, all I really know to do at this juncture is ask the questions, so I’m asking.