Are the Georgia Bulldogs Underachievers or Contenders? Alabama Is About to Help Them Find OutTodd Kirkland/Getty Images
One month into the season, Georgia has dispatched four unranked opponents by a combined margin of 128 points, including a 52-20 romp over South Carolina that stands as the most lopsided victory in the annual series in more than 40 years. Greyson Lambert, a summer arrival from Virginia, has been an unlikely answer to the Bulldogs’ most glaring preseason question,1 and they’ve kept tailback Nick Chubb on an All-American pace within a sustainable workload. They rank among the top eight nationally in both traditional polls and among the top five according to Jeff Sagarin, Kenneth Massey, and ESPN’s Football Power Index. And unlike certain other contenders, they’ve also remained remarkably healthy on both sides of the ball.
Ahead of this weekend’s season-defining visit from no. 13 Alabama, it’s worth considering just how rarely Georgia has managed to put itself in this position in the past decade — undefeated, nationally relevant, still boasting highly favorable odds of winning an SEC or national championship — even at this relatively nascent stage of the calendar. The fact is, for a program that enters almost every season with a “championship or bust” mentality, the month of September has been a minefield.
Last year, the Bulldogs were effectively bounced from the national conversation in their second game by a South Carolina team that went on to finish 7-6. High expectations in 2013 were derailed by an opening-night loss at Clemson. In 2011, Georgia started 0-2 with losses to South Carolina and Boise State. In 2010, the Bulldogs followed an opening-day win with a four-game losing streak. I could keep going: Since getting off to a 7-0 start all the way back in 2005, the Bulldogs have made it out of September with an unblemished record only twice, in 2006 and 2012, and in both of those cases the encouraging start was negated by blowout losses on the first Saturday of October.
Despite the insistence of Lambert and his teammates that Saturday’s collision with the Crimson Tide is merely “the next game on our schedule,” a date with the reigning SEC champs at this particular juncture, for this particular Georgia team, feels like it belongs to a much larger story, unfolding along a much longer timeline. Actually, make that two timelines: one stretching back a decade, to UGA’s last conference championship in 2005, and the other extending even further, all the way back to the well-preserved technicolor heroes of its last national championship in 1980.
Those twin droughts lend a unique urgency to every new opportunity the Bulldogs have to bring them to an end. And although they may be reluctant to say it out loud just yet — there are no bragging rights for being 4-0 against meh competition, after all — Bulldogs fans can’t help but feel that this season, and therefore this Saturday, is shaping up as a golden opportunity.
As senior offensive lineman John Theus told reporters after last week’s 48-6 win over Southern University, Alabama is “just another game we have to win to get to where we want to go” in December. He’s absolutely right. Georgia hasn’t won these types of games, or been where it ultimately wants to go in the postseason, in what feels like a very long time. And that’s exactly what makes this game so important.
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For whatever reason, this past offseason saw a national consensus anoint Georgia as college football’s most notorious underachiever. This was a trend that sprouted independently in multiple outlets after the Bulldogs gacked away another SEC East title last year, blossoming despite the ongoing mediocrity seen at division rivals Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee. (Missouri repped the East in the SEC championship game for the second year in a row, which for hard-core Ess Eee See fanatics is still akin to outsourcing the Super Bowl to China.)
An argument could be made just as strongly that Mark Richt’s tenure in Athens has been a beacon of stability. This season is Richt’s 15th at Georgia, in which time the program has yet to endure anything like the extended tribulations that have plagued the Volunteers and Gators over the past five years, to say nothing of the long-standing malaise that preceded Nick Saban’s messianic arrival at Alabama in 2007. It hasn’t succumbed to any abrupt, coach-killing collapses like the ones that befell Auburn in 20082 and 2012.3 Richt’s career winning percentage at Georgia (.745) is the best in school history. His career win total (140, all at Georgia) is tied for 10th in SEC history. Over the course of his entire tenure, UGA has the best overall record of any SEC program except LSU, and ranks behind only Ohio State, Oklahoma, and LSU nationally with 14 consecutive appearances in the preseason AP poll. Richt has kept his team relevant for longer, on a more consistent basis, than any other active coach save Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops. In most of those seasons (11 of 14) the Bulldogs have spent at least one week in the top 10; in six of them, they’ve gone on to finish there, including a final no. 9 ranking in 2014.
On the lone occasion when Richt might have been in legitimate danger of losing his job, following back-to-back unranked finishes in 2009 and 2010, the Bulldogs responded by winning the East in 2011 and then coming within one play of the BCS Championship Game on their return trip to Atlanta in 2012. In a league in which coaching tenures often turn out to be built on sand, Richt is a rock.
It’s when it comes to winning big games that Richt’s reputation as the Charlie Brown of college football — always within striking distance of the prize, never able to follow through — takes shape. In many respects, as the most high-profile, resource-rich program in one of the most fertile states for big-time FBS talent, Georgia is on a very short list of the most coveted coaching jobs in the sport, and has been for a long time: Since 1980, the year of their only post–World War II national title, the Bulldogs have posted a better overall winning percentage under four head coaches (Richt, Jim Donnan, Ray Goff, and Vince Dooley) than all but six other major programs in the same span. But by virtually any other measure of sustained, elite success — conference championships, top-five finishes, appearances in major bowl games — Georgia has lagged well behind its ostensible first-class peers:
For the first half of Richt’s tenure, it felt inevitable that one of his teams would eventually deliver on the inherent potential that Goff and Donnan had squandered throughout the ’90s. His second season, in 2002, resulted in a school record for wins (13), Georgia’s first outright SEC crown in two decades, and a no. 3 finish in both major polls. Had Ohio State faltered that year in any of its myriad close calls en route to a 13-0 record, it would have been the Bulldogs instead of the Buckeyes in the national championship game against Miami, and many of the future debates over UGA’s failure to get over the hump under Richt would have been rendered obsolete.
The ’02 breakthrough was followed by three more top-10 finishes from 2003 to 2005 and (following Richt’s first “rebuilding” year, in 2006) a no. 2 finish in 2007, when Georgia ended the season as arguably the hottest team in the nation, despite failing to win the SEC, or even the SEC East.4 The late surge was a springboard to a no. 1 preseason ranking in 2008, which is where the narrative usually begins to turn dark.
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The unofficial line of demarcation in Richt’s tenure is the infamous “Blackout Game,” a 41-30 home loss to Alabama in September 2008 that doubled as the first notice of Bama’s impending resurgence under Saban. The defeat left Georgia’s ambition in shambles, and it was followed barely a month later by an another abject thrashing at the hands of Florida, then well on its way to its second BCS title in three years. After a wave of preseason hype, the ’08 Bulldogs limped to a 10-3 campaign that felt like a disaster, and the aftertaste of that disappointment — the sense of missed opportunity with a roster that featured Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, A.J. Green, and a dozen future draft picks on defense — has never fully abated. Aside from the surprising near miss in 2012,5 Georgia has remained conspicuously absent from the national conversation in every season since. It’s a span that just happened to coincide with the trophy-passing among fellow SEC heavies Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and LSU.
The 2008 flop against Alabama has been receiving a lot of attention this week. The 2015 game could prove to be an equally important turning point. Most coaches who win big tend to win fast, within their first few years on the job: For Richt, the window for capitalizing on the momentum of his initial wave of success slammed shut years ago,6 and it’s fair to wonder, as the good-not-great seasons accumulate, how many more chances he’ll get to pry it back open, and whether any of them will be better than the chance he has in front of him right now.
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So then: Is the 2015 edition poised to get over the hump? Oddsmakers seem to think so — as of this writing, Georgia was listed as a two-point favorite against Alabama, which (if it holds through Saturday afternoon) will mark the first game Bama has played as a betting underdog since the 2009 SEC championship game. (Ironically, the last time the Crimson Tide were underdogs in the regular season was the 2008 Blackout Game against Georgia.) The aura of invincibility that has surrounded Alabama for most of Saban’s tenure has gradually eroded over the past year or two, and it may not apply to the current team at all after most of the country watched the Tide commit five turnovers in a sloppy 43-37 loss to Ole Miss. It’s not entirely clear that Saban has settled on Jake Coker as his starting quarterback, and even if he has, the interception issues that plagued the offense against Ole Miss still loom large.
So far, at least, Georgia looks much more like a finished product. It was hard not to be impressed by the 32-point pasting the Bulldogs put on South Carolina. Even against a diminished version of the Gamecocks, Lambert’s flawless stat line (24-of-25 passing, 330 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) was a revelation, especially for a guy who somehow lost the starting job at Virginia.
The offense has gotten everything it expected from the hyper-productive Chubb, a bona fide star with 12 straight 100-yard rushing games under his belt,7 and it’s gotten a lot more than it expected from fifth-year senior wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who looks as healthy as ever after struggling through a laundry list of injuries (including a torn ACL that cost him all of 2013 and limited his production last year) in his first four years on campus. The offensive line is a veteran group with four returning starters from 2014; the defense consists overwhelmingly of upperclassmen in their third, fourth, or fifth year in the program.
The great unknown for this group, and for Lambert in particular, is how well it plays in a game that everyone knows will make or break the rest of the season. As much as the pregame media narrative has obsessed over the 2008 flop against Alabama, most of the current Georgia roster is too young even to remember that game, much less to think of it as relevant; some of the older players were on hand for the heartbreaking loss to Bama in the 2012 SEC title game, but certainly not enough to cast Saturday’s rematch into some kind of long-simmering revenge tour. The stakes are strictly practical: After Saturday, the rest of the schedule consists of a series of medium-size hurdles (Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Tech), but none that Georgia won’t be expected to clear; the only member of that sextet that’s ranked in the current AP poll is Florida, at no. 25. If this is the year the Bulldogs finally reach their ceiling under Richt, Saturday will be the first opportunity to prove it, and quite possibly the last. Either way, it should tell us all we need to know about how high that ceiling is.