Saturday will be a deciding factor

mlough@macon.comSeptember 8, 2011 

At about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, we’ll know.

At about that same time the previous Saturday, there was optimism regarding Georgia. Within three hours, it was all but gone.

Aaron Murray was to have shown progress. He didn’t.

The offensive line was expected to have cohesiveness after the whole month of August with little interruption. It didn’t.

The receivers had the chance to step up without a major go-to target in front of them. They didn’t.

Few expected the defense to have the same issues as last year -- remarkably poor fundamentals in areas that have nothing to do with a scheme change -- nor to be pushed around. Those few were wrong.

There was a vibe that the offense was going to show something different. The vibe was apparently the feeling of trucks on the interstate.

And we expected to see a Georgia team with an edge because we expected a Mark Richt with an edge.

We were wrong.

Even Richt-bashers couldn’t have expected 2011’s opener to bear so much of a resemblance to early 2010, but it was scary.

Anybody who has paid attention to my columns expects more defense of Richt, more encouragement of patience, a reminder of his record and reputation.

But that tank is approaching E.

The belief that Georgia can go 0-2 and still win the SEC East remains, but that belief is less strong as we enter the biggest game of Richt’s career.

It’s simple.

If Georgia bears no resemblance to last week/year against South Carolina, regardless of final score, the season remains alive. Games against Coastal Carolina and Mississippi should serve as confidence- and depth-boosters, and Richt needs to be compared to Steve Spurrier as far as running it up.

Players still have to play, and coaches have to adjust -- finally -- to what just doesn’t work.

But if the Bulldogs look too familiar, the clock starts ticking officially, and deservedly so, on the Richt era. The players will give up, at least subconsciously, because nothing will feel different, progressive.

And that’s what Georgia had to show, progress. There’s a good 14-point loss as part of a good 8-4 season, and there’s a bad 14-point loss as part of a bad 8-4 season. And with a ridiculous number of players back in 2012, a good 8-4 or better puts Georgia in line to be a legitimate national championship contender.

But it’s hard to see that now.

We’ll save the misguided bashing of Mike Bobo -- how quickly folks forget how much they wanted Richt to give up that play-calling role -- for later, but the Bulldogs remain as predictable now as they were five or so years ago. Without the same level of defense making up for it, success is tougher to find by doing the same things.

No question, executive offensive coordinator Richt has made strategic, recruiting and staffing miscues, and he is a stubborn as all other coaches. Open minds aren’t bad, and coaches rarely have them. Richt’s stubbornness has started to bother even long-time defenders.

But let’s also be fair in passing blame on to players.

They’re big boys, they’re playing major-college football, and they’re well aware of the business part of it. They’re getting a free ride, among other free things, and playing in front of cities each week and regional or national TV audiences most of the time. They’re not coached to do some of the things they do.

HBO’s “Hard Knocks” had a great clip of Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis ripping his team a couple of years ago: “You can’t give up the ball, you can’t miss tackles, you can’t step out of bounds, you can’t have penalties, you can’t field punts on the 1-yard line. … You better make up your mind what you’re gonna do. It’s your football team. Find a way to fix it. Reach down inside and …”

Can’t use the final part of what Lewis said, but it easily translates in Georgia’s case to “reach down inside and be a major-college football player.” Nevertheless, amen, Marvin, amen.

We won’t know what the players really have inside, but it’s their team, more than Richt’s or the fans. And if they fail, Richt will move on and players will talk about taking the blame and how it wasn’t the coaches’ fault.

That’s the stock line after every dismissal or resignation under pressure, and it’s an empty one.

Which Georgia team that shows up Saturday is anybody’s guess. But if it’s the same plays, the same execution and the same level of play, this is going to be the longest season in Athens.

If not, hop aboard for three months of a roller-coaster ride.

Contact Michael A. Lough at 744-4626 or mlough@macon.com

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