ATHENS – The Georgia football team is coming off a 7-5 season. Everybody knows that. The men’s basketball program is in its usual spot, firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. The women’s basketball team finds itself in unusual territory, pretty much out of the postseason conversation halfway through the conference schedule. Gymnastics opened the season unranked but is just underway. Nobody knows what to expect of baseball.
This is not where UGA athletics ever wants to be. If you’re Athletic Director Greg McGarity, you know this and you’re praying for improvement.
Georgia fields 16 NCAA-sanctioned sports teams if one divides them by gender, 17 if one includes women’s equestrian, which the NCAA doesn’t recognize. So the aforementioned sports aren’t the only ones. But generally all the attention is cast on the revenue – or what I deem as the “high-profile” — sports. Those are football, obviously, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and gymnastics. The Big Five, if you will.
These are the sports for which Georgia fans most often buy a ticket to attend their contests. These are the programs that solicit and receive most donations. Right now, things aren’t going great for any of them.
Based on that, one could say donors and ticket-buyers, the people paying the freight for UGA athletics, aren’t getting their money’s worth at the moment.
That’s my general conclusion, but I’m really interested in hearing how Georgia fans feel about this. As always, this is a fluid situation that is subject to change on the whims of seasons and individual contests. Much can still happen. I’m not certain anything of significance is about to.
Let me just arm you with a few facts:
- UGA’s is anything but a moribund athletics program. Actually, it’s quite healthy. The Bulldogs are coming off a 15th-place finish in the Learfield Director’s Cup standings from the academic year just past. That was third among SEC programs, behind only Florida (5th) and Texas A&M (12th).
- Georgia is still quite good in what some people like to call the “country club sports.” Men’s and women’s tennis and golf are expected to contend for SEC championships as usual this season and, likewise, maybe for national titles.
- Men’s and women’s swimming is expected to be a little down this year, but it’s all relative. Jack Bauerle’s men’s team is expected to contend for its first SEC title since the 1950s. And while the defending national champion women’s team is not expected to compete with Stanford and Cal for the national title, it will likely finish third, or at least in the Top 5.
- Baseball is a real mystery. The Diamond Dogs haven’t logged a winning season under third-year coach Scott Stricklin, but they’re coming off their best recruiting class in his tenure and should be better. Suffice it to say, they need to be.
- By all accounts, the nadir the Lady Dogs’ basketball team is experiencing was expected. In their second season under coach Joni Taylor, UGA apparently is recruiting like gangbusters and has a couple of difference-making transfers already on campus. But it’s a rarity indeed for Georgia women’s basketball to not be represented in the NCAA tournament, and that looks like that will be the case this year.
- Gymnastics is a problem. The Gym Dogs under Danna Durante – and Jay Clark before her – have gone from winning 10 national championships under Suzanne Yoculan to not really contending for any since she left (their non-competitive appearances in the Super Six duly noted). Meanwhile, Florida and LSU have risen in power in the SEC and UGA has fallen down the ranks.
- Track & field is rolling under second-year coach Petros Kyprianou. So there’s that.
- There’s no significant progress to report in women’s soccer or volleyball, the anvils that have weighted down the athletics program for years.
But, as we all know, those aren’t the sports about which Georgia people care. Honestly, it’s football and men’s basketball that drives the bus. That’s certainly the case from a revenue standpoint and perceptually as well.
Football is always going to take care of itself. Good or bad, DawgNation is passionate about the sport and, win or lose, will always support it. But that also comes with significant expectations, and certainly there has been more than a little unrest about the failure to run down any championships in 11 years. That’s why Kirby Smart is here and Mark Richt is no longer.
Smart had some hiccups in Year One, but he’s doing what he was brought in to do. He’s recruiting his tail end off. Heading into national signing day this coming Wednesday, his recruiting class is currently ranked third in the nation. Depending on how things go the next week, it could even move up a notch.
Sustaining that recruiting momentum beyond this season and developing the arriving talent are the unknown integers we can’t predict at the moment. From my perch the Bulldogs still look to be a year or two away, but you never know what can happen.
Men’s basketball, in its eighth year under Mark Fox, is the program that seems to be at a point of critical mass. This was a big year for the Bulldogs, competing in a mediocre league with a pair of the conference’s best upperclassmen in senior J.J. Frazier and junior Yante Maten. They’ve already blown two games they should have won, at Florida and that debacle at Texas A&M this past weekend. And now tonight comes a similar Alabama team to Stegeman Coliseum and Georgia once again is in a must-win-them-all scenario with the possible exception of the two remaining against Kentucky.
But even Tennessee was able to knock of the Big Blue last night in Knoxville. Certainly, the Bulldogs should be likewise capable. Lord knows they need to.
Georgia fans deserve it. They need something to get really excited about. They certainly haven’t had much of a reason to lately.