Is UGA football elite? (by D.N. Nation)

The short answer for the 2015 version of the Bulldogs is, of course, absolutely not. For the second straight season, Georgia finds itself going into battle with a sub-SEC-quality quarterback, which is cancer for the sort of classic, pro-style offense the Dawgs prefer. And for the second straight season, Georgia is left because of Reasons without its best running back—only this time, instead of Todd Gurley turning into Nick Chubb, it’s Nick Chubb turning into A Handful Of Guys. The defense relies on freshmen at times more than any other defense in college football, and the special teams are all over the place. This isn’t a great team.

Though the back door is opened for Georgia to make a U MAD, SEC? troll dash toward the SEC East championship, the on-field product isn’t worthy of a trophy. (This didn’t stop the last two versions of Missouri, but we’re a better program than that.) And I don’t think Georgia is beating Florida on Saturday, which will shut them out of Atlanta entirely.

But what about Georgia football—all of it? Is UGA football elite?

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“It’s just a weird vibe around UGA. Almost like the school would feel guilty acting like a real football power.” – Dan Wolken after Georgia’s loss to Florida in 2014

———-

Georgia football’s historical pedigree doesn’t suck. The Dawgs claim two national championships with between 1-3 more that they could make a case for but don’t. 14 conference championships, 12 of them SEC. 28 bowl wins. All-time record of 778-410-54. 11th all-time in wins (ahead of, for example, Florida and LSU and Auburn). The College Football Data Warehouse matrix also has Georgia 11th all-time. That seems about right. Big stadium, lovely city, fertile recruiting ground. If Georgia won the national championship in the next five years, it probably wouldn’t shock anyone outside of a general “so those guys finally got over the hump” consensus.

Outside of the Herschel run in the early 80s (side note: those teams were not on Godlike Mode the way the old-timers would tell it; the Herschel Runs Over Bill Bates game was a 16-15 win over a Tennessee team that finished 5-6), Mark Richt has led Georgia to its most successful decade+ in program history. SEC titles in 2002 and 2005; SEC East titles in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2011, and 2012. And either to his credit or discredit depending on your mood, Richt had Georgia one game away from playing for the national championship in 2002*, 2003**, 2007***, and 2012****.

But Georgia doesn’t *feel* elite, does it? Not to me. For self-inflicted wounds, I’m afraid to say.

The pessimistic line on Richt is that he can’t lead Georgia to a title because he loses games he shouldn’t. Or that his teams have the nebulous “come up short” stigma about them. That’s not untrue. It’s what undid potential national title runs four times. But that the runs exist to begin with says positive things for his coaching acumen. And you could say that here, he’s just been unlucky. 2002 Georgia would’ve probably won the title in, say, 2006, 2007, 2010, or 2013. LSU won the title in 2007 with two losses. They won the title in 2003 after getting smacked at home by a 5-loss Florida team. 2013 Auburn required a Rube Goldberg experiment to make the championship game. 2006 Florida won all of their games by something like 20-14, and needed Southern Cal to inexplicably go belly up the last weekend of the season to make the title game. Richt just hasn’t had this sort of luck (outside of 2012 setting up nicely—we’ll get to that). But you’d think the ball could bounce the other way.

It’s not “he can’t coach” where Richt has failed Georgia, it’s in roster management. Remember the 2012 SEC Championship Game? Great game. Probably the best SECCG ever. Oregon and Kansas State, #1 and #2, had lost with two weeks to go in the regular season, setting up Georgia/Alabama as a play-in game to face Notre Dame (snicker) in the BCS Championship. Georgia was a tough out for Alabama, and they didn’t require any hurry-up pop-pass sorts of chicanery to do it. Instead, the Dawgs played their tails off and had skill position talent to nearly match Bama guy-for-guy at the top. After Georgia got a two-score lead in that game, Bama was able to man up and push Georgia around on the lines. And they were able to, by the skin of their teeth, hold off the Dawgs’ last push.

The line on that game for some was that Richt choked by not calling for a spike on the last offensive play. (I personally think it was a good, bold call.) But Richt *really* lost that game before it ever started. At kickoff, Alabama had close to 85 players ready to roll, more or less a full stable of players. Meanwhile, Georgia had less than 70 players in their arsenal because of serial undersigning in offseasons past. For whatever reason, Richt had treated his player numbers for years like Georgia was under some sort of NCAA sanctions. It killed (and still kills) Georgia when it mattered, when games became grind-’em-out trench fests. It killed (and still kills) Georgia when guys at the top, because they were hurt or tired, had to be replaced with the great unknown of freshmen and walk-ons. And it killed (and still kills) Georgia when they strike out on a couple quarterback prospects.

Undersigning has left Georgia where it is in 2015. Eight true freshmen played at least 10% of the snaps on defense two weeks ago for the Dawgs, with four over half. QB Greyson Lambert was eventually protected and vanished playcalling-wise because of the fear—with a good deal of backing to it, mind you—that he couldn’t be expected to make reasonable decisions. This, a year after Georgia started a senior eunuch under center. These are the signs of a program in a figure-things-out rebuilding mode, not one expected to contend for division titles and more every year.

Aaron Murray. Todd Gurley. Keith Marshall. Nick Chubb. Justin Scott-Wesley. Malcolm Mitchell. Michael Bennett. Jay Rome. Other than often being awesome players in Athens, what do they all have in common? Horrific, career-altering injuries, ranging from requiring months of rehabilitation to straight up making a player quit football. Football is luck. Stuff happens. World War I had better turf than Neyland Stadium in 2013, and the SEC never, ever, ever protected Aaron Murray from a Ryan’s Buffet of late hits and cheap shots, the last of which tore an ACL. My bitterness aside, the lack of conditioning smarts on this team couldn’t be more evident. Strength and conditioning in the year 2015 is more an exact science than ever, but for the longest time, Georgia’s S&C staff has operated like a cross between a Civil War medic unit and a 1920s YMCA. Instead of pressing for a staff full of analytics nerds and fitness freaks, Richt opted to give the chief position to a legacy hire who went old school with training and stayed there. Would specialized, smarter training have saved the Dawgs from an ACL tear plague? Your answer may vary from “we’ll never know” to “it certainly would’ve,” which is cause enough in my mind to make the commitment to change.

This is all on Richt. But his bosses in the Athletic Department have been just as lost.

There are no academic scandals, there are no booster improprieties, there is no NCAA breathing down Georgia’s neck, and yet, the program has cowered like all of these are happening. Players lose a big chunk of the season for smoking weed, and are booted off the team for doing it a second time. The football program kneels and whimpers to University Police, not the other way around. Imagine a Nick Saban player being arrested for “emerging from an alley” or for declining to give his middle name to Tuscaloosa PD. Imagine an LSU player getting tossed off the team for smoking pot twice, rather than the 40 or whatever times it was that did in the Honey Badger. Imagine Nick Marshall going from Auburn to Georgia, instead of the other way around. I’m not saying the Georgia brass should ignore malfeasance. But it shouldn’t be this aggressive, hyper-moralist scold, either.

Until this past offseason, the idea from the Athletic Department was that Richt and his assistants had to win, and then the money would flow. For years, the Athletic Department had declined to build an indoor practice facility because of various hemming and hawing reasons, with the end argument eventually settling on “more SEC championships first, plz.” Meanwhile, Georgia assistants earned salaries in the lower half of the conference. This is crummy program building. If you want to win, you pay to do it. And then you win. Alabama knows this. UGA football made about $40M last year. This program isn’t suffering for money.

And this is the program the FIRE RICHT crowd would have replace a consistent 9/10-game winner, despite all his legitimate flaws, with…question mark.

Here’s where I highlight the beginning to two paragraphs ago. “Until this past offseason.” After a strange week during the Belk Bowl last year, when it appeared that Richt and Georgia’s Athletic Director, Greg McGarity, were on the outs, McGarity out of nowhere opened up the purse for Richt and his assistants. Richt got an $800,000/year raise, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt got a $450,000 raise, and some other coaches down the chain were given competitive salaries as well. And the Athletic Department finally, finally!, FINALLY!, committed to building an indoor practice facility, which will be finished around 2017.

Let’s go back to that earlier quote.

———-

“It’s just a weird vibe around UGA. Almost like the school would feel guilty acting like a real football power.” – Dan Wolken after Georgia’s loss to Florida in 2014

———-

We don’t know what happened between Richt and McGarity during bowl week in December. (My guess is that Pruitt has been leading the charge on internal improvements, but that’s mostly an intangible feel off of him being a former Bama guy.) But since then, there’s been a 180 in how this program is internally perceived and managed. Georgia is making strides to act like the real football power it feigns to be. The sins of the past can’t be deleted as easy as one restarts a computer. Richt’s roster mismanagement has left Georgia perilously young and with holes, and the financial side of things left us with competitive disadvantages that are only now being negated. But I can feel a new commitment that might not necessarily show itself in the kinda-crummy on-field product. Next year’s recruiting class is great. QB Jacob Eason is the real deal.

Cue the power/responsibility speech from the comics. I’ve tried to shy away from being a FIRE RICHT NOW type, because the devil Georgia knew with Richt was better than the devil we didn’t, with a penny-pinching, bean-counting Athletic Department sure to give us the latter. But if the financial investment is there, if the facilities are there, if the momentum is there, and Georgia is still going its classic 9-3—if Georgia still isn’t elite—then it’ll be legitimately time to do something else.

Oh, also, we still really need to fix special teams.

And probably fire Schottenheimer.

* A loss to a crummy, Ron Zook-helmed Florida team. Hence where “discredit” has to appear along with “credit.”
** Had Billy Bennett not missed three field goals against LSU, Georgia would’ve finished the season with 1 loss, LSU would’ve lost the SEC West to Ole Miss, and the Dawgs would’ve just needed to beat the Rebels (They would’ve.) to be involved in that USC/Oklahoma/SEC winner fustercluck.
*** Georgia was #4 in the BCS on conference championship weekend. #1 and #2 both lost. Georgia didn’t play. If #1 and #2 lose, #3 and #4 play for the BCS marbles, no? Except the football shouting heads mandated that You Can’t Play For The Title Without Winning Your Division (rule does not apply to 2001 Nebraska or 2011 Alabama) and Georgia was left out. Would’ve taken just a home win over a bowlless South Carolina team to render the point moot.
**** 5 yards away.

52 thoughts on “Is UGA football elite? (by D.N. Nation)”

  1. Very thorough analysis. I’m reluctant to ascribe specific psychological characteristics to an entity as nebulous as a college football program. Those types of narratives are right until they’re wrong, which usually means they were wrong to begin with. The undersigning phenomenon as partial explanation makes some sense to me, and certainly there needs to be at least one additional intermediate level of punishment for pot smoking. Too early to tell on Schottenheimer.

  2. This post was great. I didn’t know UGA had been undersigning, nor did I know about the internal improvements/facilities upgrades.

    The next five years in the East could be really interesting with Florida and Tennessee both potentially on the come-up as well. Y’all might have the further bad luck of getting better at the same time they do, which would just point further to 2013-15 being a missed window.

    I look forward to all kinds of unexpected and hilarious shenanigans this afternoon, though it’s hard to tell at this point which team I mean that about. Maybe both.

  3. @2, shout to D.N. Nation, author of this post. I’ll vouch for him being someone who follows the Dwags so closely.

  4. From MLBTR:

    “The Nationals have been linked to free agent Matt Wieters, but a source tells MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko that the team is not interested in signing him. Incumbent Nats catcher Wilson Ramos is coming off a miserable .229/.258/.358 season, Wieters’ agent Scott Boras has plenty of Nationals clients, and the catching market is thin, but it sounds like the Nats could look elsewhere to address the position. Kubatko notes that the Braves are a more logical destination for Wieters, who has a residence in the Atlanta area.”

    I’m sincerely hoping that Wieters feels he needs Atlanta and signs a team-friendly deal. Then keep Bethancourt in AAA another year and see if he can get his head out of his rectum. You really can’t have an immature numbskull behind the plate with so many young pitchers. Then deal Bethancourt next offseason regardless of 2016 performance.

    I saw where Olivera is getting worked out in left. Uhhhhhh… no? We traded our top prospect and a decent pitcher for a left fielder who hits like a third baseman? He needs to be a third baseman or the trade was a bust.

  5. Georgia is not a top 50 team. Let that soak in for a bit. Then think about whether a change is due or not.

  6. I’m watching this game with D.N. and he’s flipped his stance and is advocating that Richt be fired at halftime. FYI

  7. Why Olivera in left? Is the team so bullish on demigod? Rio? Austin riley who won’t be in atlanta until Olivera is retired?

    Hey, maybe we’re gonna sign Uribe. I would be ok with that for a 1-yr deal.

  8. Georgia is not even in the cfb conversation. I don’t know what to do. I wanted this staff fired after the WVU Sugar Bowl loss many years ago. Enjoy. It is what it is.

  9. Perhaps they see enough athleticism with Olivera to have him be a Ben Zobrist-type super utility guy. I suppose if he can play 2B/3B/LF and can hit .272/.359/.439 the way Zobrist hit from ages 30-34, then I could live with that. But he has to play the majority of the time in the infield for the trade to make sense.

    Oh, and Go Gators!

  10. @12 – I’m concerned that it is more likely that they no longer believe that he can play 3B. Still too early to say exactly how good he is going to be, but at his age it seems hard to dispute that he has a low ceiling.

  11. I think Mark Richt is a class act in every way. I would love to see him successful and stay in Georgia for a long time. I would even be happy if Georgia won the SEC and National Championship under Richt when Alabama has an off year.

    In spite of the above, I thought the Florida game was inexcusable and was almost like he wanted to lose. He starts a qb for the first time in the biggest game of the year and the guy can’t throw when he gets rushed and throws 4 interceptions. Why would he not play his former first teamer or even someone else? The guy averaged 4.6 yards per pass and the team needed a spark. Richt deserves to get fired after this game. The offense gets an extra week to prepare and amasses all of 220 yards or so!

  12. Yeah, this Florida game was probably my breaking point. Months and years of bad decisions were put all on the table at once. If McGarity wants to pull the trigger, I’d support it.

    Hope we can keep Jeremy Pruitt around, though. The defense isn’t anything to write home about yet, but he’s done well building it back up from the hole that Todd Grantham left him. Those guys were on the field for like 95% of the game and played well for the most part.

    Jim McElwain has Florida winning the East and an outside playoff contender in Year 1, simply by being competent and getting his guys to play hard. Faced with that, we looked completely flummoxed.

  13. Georgia hasn’t recruited the lines of scrimmage well, and until they fix that there’s not going to be much winning going on.

    As for the QB’s…seems like there’s probably about 10 or so guys every year in Georgia high-school ball that would be better QB’s than the ones UGA has trotted out there the past two seasons. It’s really hard to fathom how badly they’ve missed on the recruiting trail lately.

    The tail end of the Mark Richt era is making a lot of us wonder why we get so worked up when teenagers that we don’t know play some bad football.

  14. It would suggest to me that UGA will be looking for a head coach soon. I see that UGA has averaged 9.6 wins in the last 8 years, which is nothing to sneeze at, but I think Richt has reached the peak of what he’ll accomplish there. They may very well not get a coach any better than Richt, but they’re doing themselves a disservice if they don’t try. Richt is a good coach, but good can be an enemy of great. UGA will go into a competitive environment for head coaching candidates, and frankly, there are better jobs out there.

    I’m amazed at how well McElwain has done at Florida. I was a little concerned about him when they hired him, and I’m interested if he can built a defense the further we get from the Muschamp era, but it’s hard to question that he needs what buttons to push to win football games, and that’s a skill only a few in college football really excel at.

  15. Richt was the hottest coach available the last time UGA went looking. No reason to think they won’t compete for the best available talent this time around.

  16. I was talking to a Miami fan yesterday, and you really have to wonder how the schools fall in the pecking order for the best coaches. USCw, USCe, Miami, V-Tech, UCF, and perhaps Georgia. There really aren’t that many good coaches out there. As for Houston’s Tom Herman, do people really see him leaving Houston after one season? And after him, who’s really out there?

  17. Of the schools listed at 26, I would say USCw is number one for the right coach and Georgia could be number 2, slightly ahead of USCe because a good coach could come to Georgia and be successful quickly. Miami has tried to upgrade facilities that were horrible, but I’m still not sure it’s an elite program with a home stadium capacity of 76k. Fuente from Memphis is a hot commodity that will probably go to one of the teams listed above.

  18. There are always good coaches available. Butts, Dooley, and Richt — the three most successful UGA head coaches — had never had a head coaching gig before. To draw only from surprisingly successful coaches of less storied programs as your hiring pool is a failure of imagination. Not that I’m accusing you of that — not after supposing that the UGa job just might rank with that of Central Florida!

  19. When a pitcher goes to the manager and says “No way” to being taken out, it’s the manager’s job to be an adult and not a knucklehead romantic fan.

  20. Central Florida may not be too bad of a gig compared to Georgia. Georgia fans want to fire a coach that has won 10 games twice as many times as he hasn’t. Sheesh, talk about expectations. Do that at Central Florida and they just might build a statue of you.

    And I’m sure you would agree that there’s a lower probability of success when you hire someone without head coaching experience at a big program. I can’t think of too many coaches who have had success at top programs without head coaching experience whereas we all can think of plenty who did.

  21. Richt used to get performance commensurate with his talent, but its been a while. Its hard to make the point that the dean of SEC coaches hadn’t had a fair shake.

  22. I kinda feel good for the Royals. They were the laughingstock of baseball for most of my life since I became baseball conscious.

  23. @19. So it takes about 10 years for Moore to turn the royals around…kudos for the royals owner to have this kind of patience.

  24. Does anyone wish MLB would abolish divisions and let the top four or whatever teams by record in each league into the postseason?

    The 98-win Pirates, in probably the best division in 2015, getting only one play-in game, while the 90-win Mets, who played 54 of their regular season games against the Phillies, Braves and Marlins, getting a full series just feels like a joke.

  25. @40, Not particularly. It would be more fair, but I’m not sure fairness and goodness are one and the same goal in the world of professional sports. You want it to be mostly fair, but I like that some B.S. gets mixed in.

  26. Go Royals!

    As a non UGA fan, I still believe the program is elite. I think Richt is a good coach. Injuries have killed this team. Once Chubb went down, it was going to be hard win.

    You guys win the east every third year. You do drop some games you shouldn’t, but you also win ones no one thinks you will.

    There have been years past where UGA would have made this new playoff format.

    Historically, there are three powers in the East (Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, though recent history, not the Vols) The next 3-5 years will be fun. Tennessee is loaded with young talent, so is UGA. If this guy at Florida can recruit, then they will be good too.

    Actually, being historically strong is why there was a lot of preseason hype around this team. But admit it, there were a ton of holes, quarterback being A#1. It is hard to find a good college quarterback now. There use to be more guys out there, but not anymore.

    I would let Richt bring in this next class and see what he can do with this #1 QB prospect over the next few years. But that’s just me. I think Richt is one of the best 3-5 coaches in the conference (Saban, Miles, Richt…) I think he is better than Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze, Gary Pinkel and Kevin Sumlin.

  27. @45

    Sometimes you get tired of what you have and feel like you have to make a change. I don’t think Richt has gotten complacent like Fulmer did, so be carful what you wish for.

  28. After this season’s results, I’m shocked SHOCKED that our resident UT and UF boosters think UGA should stay the course! As a UGA myopic, I sometimes fail to see the larger picture, but I believe I can recognize a series of lackluster, dispiriting efforts when I see them. Let the hotshot freshman QB growing pains happen under a new regime, methinks.

  29. On Georgia football:

    I was o.k. but not happy with Richt until the Alabama game. It was not losing the game, it was once again appearing to be overwhelmed and out matched.

    The Special Teams Gaffes are either poor effort or bad coaching. They also show not building depth.

    Richt got passed by with a few of the “wrinkles.” The “under signings” really wasn’t “under signings” it was 3 year players going to the nfl and throwing guys off of the team. Now, we also have to deal with “grad transfer.” So, you bring in a guy like Aaron Murray in January and he is smart and finishes his degree and can leave with 2 years of eligibility left. So, you have to push toward the 25 or so each year.

    When the rules change, you have to ASSUME you will need to change and analyze closely. “Red shirting” will only seldom, NOW, help a team. If you can afford to give a couple of offensive and defensive line “project” scholarships a year, you can effectively use that. The last 2 years, Richt seems to have gotten that.

    But when all is said and done, we get at least one loss or beatdown every year that we should not. We let at least one bad team hang with us that should not (and this has affected the QB situation. Shouldn’t Ramsey and Bauta have gotten more live SEC rep time before this year?) We lose games from stupid coaching almost once each year (GT 2014 and “squib kick”).

    And look at the Bauta experiment. Early, he was hitting swing passes. Then things got a little more complicated. But he is the RUNNING qb. Why wasn’t he running. Short yardage I formation, FAKE to Sony Michel, reverse pivot and drive at the guard on the other side. DUH. Then, when the Bauta experiment stalled, why not try to switch back to Lambert?

    And underperforming players. From Dooley’s arrival in Athens until about 8 years ago, Georgia’s kickers were essentially the best in the nation. Both punters and placekickers. Then, we get the most spectacular kicking recruit in Blair Walsh. In big games, he doesn’t perform. BUT, he goes to the NFL and is BETTER than at uga. What gives? Look at how many of the players Richt gets credit for placing in the NFL played very little for Georgia. It screams of bad talent evaluation.

    Smitty at 46, I never perceived Fulmer was complacent, I perceived the game was passing him by. Also, he lost Cutcliffe and subsequent things have shown that was a bad thing. I do believe that the chance that performance will drop with a new coach is real. It definitely will for a year or two. We might blow up this upcoming recruiting class. But if that class is going to produce like these past few, then what is the point?

  30. Trying Olivera out in LF says more about the lack of OF depth than anything notable about Olivera, IMHO. Right now, the Braves’ 2016 OF consists of Singles Markakis, The Corpse of Michael Borne, Let’s All Pretend My Second Half Wasn’t Regression To Mean Maybin, and I’m Really Fast But Haven’t Played Above T-Ball Smith.

  31. @32-

    “Central Florida may not be too bad of a gig compared to Georgia. Georgia fans want to fire a coach that has won 10 games twice as many times as he hasn’t. Sheesh, talk about expectations.”

    Yes, and Richt did win 10 games last season. But this is a horribly coached zombie team at the moment, and the Schottenheimer hire might be the worst thing Richt’s ever done in Athens. At some point the writing on the wall yells. Does Richt have what it takes to turn this around in 2015? That’s what you answer. Not how well Richt did in, say, 2005.

    IMO, there are more “held onto this guy for one year too long” fires than there are “shouldn’t have cut bait so quickly” ones. Frank Solich is really the only big one I can think of for the later camp.

    Yes, Central Florida is certainly less pressure than Georgia, but who cares? So is bagging groceries at Bi-Lo.

  32. @48-

    “And look at the Bauta experiment. Early, he was hitting swing passes. Then things got a little more complicated. But he is the RUNNING qb. Why wasn’t he running. Short yardage I formation, FAKE to Sony Michel, reverse pivot and drive at the guard on the other side. DUH. Then, when the Bauta experiment stalled, why not try to switch back to Lambert?”

    Brian Schottenheimer is a terrible, terrible coordinator. The worst thing is, you can see it from the stands. Against Mizzou, when me and Mizzou and God and everyone knew it was coming, we were throwing fruitless WR screens with the smaller true freshman blocking for the bigger hoss senior. That’s a bad decision, poorly executed, poorly conceived, poorly planned, poorly everything. And we did it, like, five times. W.C.G., who was sitting next to me in the upper deck, can I attest that I said exactly what we were going to do and that it wasn’t going to work right before we did and it didn’t.

    Mike Bobo had his faults and his aggressive detractors, but more often than not his offenses moved the ball and put up points. Schottenheimer’s offense fails in every conceivable measure, and even a layman can see it. If this guy was named Brian Jones, you’d never see him coaching in football’s highest levels.

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