Going by winning percentage, Mark Richt was the best coach Georgia ever had. (Unless we count Robert Winston, who was 5-1 in his one season, which was 1894, or Bryan McClendon, 1-0 in January 2016.) That Richt no longer coaches Georgia has less to do with the wins – he was 19-6 over his final two seasons – than the losses. That sounds like doubletalk, I know. It’s also the truth.
From Sept. 27, 2008 – the night of the Blackout, the night Alabama led by 31 points after 30 minutes – through the end of last season, Georgia was 14-23 against opponents ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. It was 5-12 versus the top 10. To borrow an expression from Urban Meyer, whose Florida Gators administered two of those losses, the measure of a coach is how his team fares “when the checkers are equal.” In such games, Georgia under Richt had come to fare … not well.
We trot out this oft-cited history because Richt’s successor is about to face a checkers-are-equal test in Week 1 of Year 1. North Carolina is coming off an 11-3 season and ranked No. 22 in the AP poll, four spots behind Georgia. The Bulldogs are slight favorites, but this is a game they could lose.
From 2013 through 2015, Georgia lost one conference game it shouldn’t have – first Vanderbilt, then the infamous Florida no-show, then the collapse at Tennessee – and those rankled. But only four of the final 17 losses under Richt came against unranked opponents. (Those three plus Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.) The middle-sized stuff didn’t undo him; the consistent failure in Big Games did.
If we check the schedule Kirby Smart inherited, four games qualify as large – North Carolina in the Dome, Ole Miss in Oxford, Tennessee in Athens and Florida in Jacksonville. (Note that Auburn and Georgia Tech are picked sixth in seven-team divisions.) Smart was hired because – stop me if you’ve heard this already – his previous employer tended to win nearly every Big Game. Some Georgia fans have long wondered, “Why can’t we be Alabama?” Smart represents a Bama graft onto the marrow of Bulldog Nation.
We can’t know how Smart will fare in a Big Game because, duh, he has never worked a game of any size as a head coach. The guess here is that he won’t be overwhelmed. He has been prepping for this all his working life. And if he doesn’t yet have Alabama-type talent across the board, he can’t exactly cry hunger.
From North Carolina coach Larry Fedora’s Monday briefing in Chapel Hill: “Since I’ve been here, I don’t think there’s been a year where Georgia hasn’t been in the top 10 in recruiting rankings.” (Close. Over Fedora’s five seasons at Carolina, Rivals has ranked the Bulldogs’ recruiting 12th, 12th, seventh, sixth and 11th.)
More Fedora: “They’ve got players. There’s going to be a tailback back there that can go. There’s going to be an offensive line that can go. There’s going to be a quarterback that, whoever it is, he can go. Same thing on defense. They’ve got players.”
Yes. Always. That’s why Richt is readying the Miami Hurricanes for their opener against Florida A&M and not steeling for Fedora’s Heels: The suspicion – heck, it was a big fat fact – that the big-name Bulldogs were seldom Big-Game Bulldogs. (It wasn’t always so. In earlier and happier days, Richt’s teams were capable of beating anybody anywhere, except Florida in Jacksonville. Times changed, as times do.)
Now it’s Smart’s turn to try. It’s probably worth mentioning that, since 2010, Alabama is 13-2 versus top 10 opponents. Granted, Bama was favored in every game except the one in Athens last October because Bama always has the best players. But Georgia has good players, too. Come Saturday night, we’ll begin to see if Crusty Kirby can do what he was commissioned to do – turn good into better, and maybe soon into the best.