Georgia still good, but still not great

semerson@macon.comOctober 15, 2012 

It was a sentiment buried deep in the obituary of Phil Self, a 66-year old Georgia man who passed away last Wednesday. He was a father of three, and grandparent of three, a lawyer for 35 years.

And, oh by the way, “Phil was a diehard Georgia Bulldogs fan and was a season tickets holder for decades. It is a shame that the last game he saw was the tragedy last Saturday night.”

Yes, even those who have passed on, or at least their family members, are still apparently angry over Georgia’s embarrassing Oct. 6 loss at South Carolina.

On that night, in 15 minutes of football, the Georgia football team undid all the progress and goodwill it engendered during a 5-0 start. That decisive first quarter, when the Bulldogs fell behind 21-0, reignited the ill feelings of 2010 and early 2011, and it awakened the critics of head coach Mark Richt.

One bye week later, let’s take stock of this Bulldogs team, and where it goes from here.

And let’s have some perspective.

The situation at Georgia is far from bleak. This is not a dumpster fire. You want bleak, Georgia fans? Then you’re about to see it on Saturday when your team visits Kentucky, with empty seats and head coach Joker Phillips hanging on a thread. You want a dumpster fire? Then you’ll see it in November when Georgia visits Auburn. And, so far at least, no one in Athens is painting rocks calling for the firing of the head coach, as they did last weekend in Tennessee.

And don’t even get us started on Arkansas.

But Georgia is also looking up at four other teams in the SEC right now: Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina. And that’s the source of much legitimate frustration among the Bulldogs’ fan base. They see a team that has not beaten a top-20 team in three years. They see a team that was thoroughly embarrassed Oct. 6; it would be one thing if the Bulldogs had lost a close one, but the way it happened was to many fans, to use the wording of that obituary, a tragedy.

Before the season, I was asked during radio interviews about Richt’s critics going away after last year’s run to the SEC championship game and the subsequent contract extension. My standard answer was that the pressure was off ... and would be until the next loss.

I guess I was right.

In his public comments, Richt always means well, but sometimes the execution is off. He sent out a tweet late last week saying “Geaux Tigers,” as in he was rooting for LSU to help Georgia in the SEC East race. Of course he was, but it was a sentiment probably left better unsaid; less than a week after his team’s pummeling at South Carolina, it wasn’t the right message to send.

One suspects that if Richt had come out after the South Carolina game and ripped into his team’s performance, ripped into himself -- ripped into anyone -- a large segment of the Bulldogs fans would be more forgiving. Instead, what Georgia fans saw was a listless performance by their team followed by a comparable lack of fire from their head coach. Perhaps it’s not fair; Richt might have been absolutely right that his team didn’t play flat, it just got out-physicalled by the Gamecocks.

But that wasn’t the message that his team’s fans wanted to hear.

Richt’s demeanor has always been an issue with some fans. When he wins, it’s an even-keel, level-headed approach. When he loses, it’s a lack of fire and passion.

In some ways, Richt might have made a better NFL head coach or baseball manager, his approach better suited for the long haul, and letting men be men. Then again, you can’t say it hasn’t worked at all in college: Look at that winning percentage. Look at those SEC championships and New Year’s Day bowls.

Richt’s career winning percentage is .740. If the Bulldogs finish the regular season 10-2 -- which at this point seems the worst-case scenario -- then his career mark will be at 116-40 entering the bowl. And he will have coached the team to two straight 10-win seasons, and eight in 12 years.

What Georgia fans want to know is whether there will ever be more. They want to know whether they will go from good to great.

Much will be forgiven if Georgia beats Florida. Even more will be forgiven if the Bulldogs get back to Atlanta, and somehow even win there.

The team that got blown out in Columbia didn’t look capable of that. If a better team doesn’t show up the rest of the way, especially on Oct. 27, then the amount of disgruntled fans -- dead or alive -- will only keep growing.

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com.

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