ATHENS — It’s a question Mark Richt has been asked more than once this season, and he has steadfastly insisted on a similar reply.
Has Georgia, as a program, slipped during the past two seasons?
“I think that all programs go through some cycles,” Richt said. “We’ve been on a pretty good upswing for quite some time, and this year has certainly been a downturn when it comes to record. That’s the way I — I mean, it is what it is. But will we get it back on track and get back to the winning ways we’re used to? I think so. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”
Richt may remain confident, but his team has provided little optimism for fans recently.
There have been other low points along the way, but Saturday’s second-half implosion against Kentucky may have been rock bottom. It was a microcosm of nearly every pitfall the Bulldogs have faced for the past two seasons, all squeezed into one half of football as the Wildcats outscored Georgia 28-7 in the second half to send Richt to his fifth loss of the season — the most he has ever experienced as a head coach or assistant.
“That’s how it goes sometimes,” Richt said. “I’m not thrilled with that, but it’s here, and we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do about it. I’m pretty confident our guys will get back, review what happened and quickly move on to prepare for Georgia Tech.”
The Yellow Jackets remain the final obstacle on Georgia’s regular-season slate, and Tech will no doubt be a big favorite to win, leaving the Bulldogs staring at a .500 record at year’s end for the first time since 1996.
The underlying problems are nothing new, but Georgia has shown little ability to correct the mistakes.
In early season games against South Carolina and Arkansas, Georgia’s secondary has was scorched routinely. Now with just one game left in the season, the Bulldogs still rank 10th in the SEC in pass defense and allowed true freshman Morgan Newton, making just the second start of his career, to throw three touchdowns Saturday — one more than he had all season.
Richt began fighting to cut Georgia’s penalties last season after the Bulldogs ranked among the most penalized teams in the country. This year, the same problems have persisted, the Bulldogs rank 116th of 120 FBS teams in penalties, and flags on the defense were directly responsible for two of Kentucky’s touchdowns Saturday.
After last season’s disastrous kickoff coverage, Richt vowed improvement. Place-kicker Blair Walsh has been exceptional this season, but the coverage has been a disaster. Georgia ranks 119th nationally in kick return yards allowed, and only one of the Wildcats’ six drives following kickoffs began inside its own 30.
Turnovers have plagued Georgia all season — on both sides of the ball. Georgia has won the turnover battle just once all season, ranks 119th nationally in turnover ratio and has just eight takeaways all year — worst in the country. The Bulldogs turned the ball over four times in the second half against Kentucky and, despite Newton’s inexperience, the defense couldn’t create a single takeaway.
Georgia has allowed the opponent to score first in seven of 11 games, including Saturday’s game, and has been outscored 75-34 in the first quarter against SEC opponents this season. Kentucky’s 6-0 first-quarter lead turned out to be the difference in the final score Saturday.
While the problems have cropped up throughout the season, they all manifested in the second half Saturday, sending Georgia’s seniors off the field at Sanford Stadium for the final time with a performance hardly fitting the scenario they had envisioned.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” linebacker Marcus Washington said. “I’ll never suit up and play again in Sanford Stadium, and I went out — I didn’t go out on top. We went out on a sour note, and that’s a real bad taste in our mouth.”
Georgia is now 6-5 on the season and just 9-7 in its past 16 games.
Richt told his team prior to the Kentucky game that a win could mean a trip to Tampa, Fla. for the Outback Bowl. A loss could put the Bulldogs in Shreveport, La. for the Independence Bowl, which customarily takes the ninth-best team in the SEC.
After Saturday’s loss, it’s not an unreasonable scenario, and ninth in the SEC is a position Georgia is not accustomed to.
“We don’t know where that’s going to put us, but this is definitely a tough loss,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “You wanted to get that win for your seniors. For the fans you want it to be a great memory of that last home game of the season, and it just hurts.”
Richt said he was hopeful receiver A.J. Green and safety Bacarri Rambo would be able to play against Georgia Tech after missing last week’s game, but said it was “not a slam dunk” on either player.