10-2 last season. Preseason No. 1. Dominated their first three opponents. Home game against a second year coach installing new systems on both sides of the ball (including the third offense in three years), playing a ton of freshmen and sophomores, and went 6-6 last year.
Easy win, right? Wrong.
Do not get me wrong. I expected Georgia to win. But I was not at all surprised when they lost. The reason? A history lesson. A lot of people would like to believe that the 2003 national title race was between LSU, Oklahoma, and USC. Wrong. It was between Nick Saban's LSU and Mark Richt's UGA.
They played two games that season. The first was a regular season matchup in Baton Rouge, and UGA, who went 13-1 the prior season (But 11-2 USC was OBVIOUSLY the best team at the end of the season that year right?) was the favorite.
LSU eked out a tough win thanks to Nick Saban's defensive playcalling rattling QB David Greene—and head coach Mark Richt—and UGA debacles in special teams.
The SEC championship game was the rematch, and again the conventional wisdom backed UGA.
Not only is it very difficult to beat a quality team twice in the same season, but UGA had fixed their kicking game issues, gotten healthier and more experienced on the offensive line, was heading into the matchup full of momentum after victories over hated rivals Auburn and Georgia Tech, and the game was in Atlanta, practically UGA's backyard.
LSU absolutely dominated UGA in one of the most disappointing SEC championship games in the history of the event. (Sure, there have been bigger blowouts, but they were mismatches, not matchups between a pair of national title-worthy teams.)
This is not an anomaly, but rather a pattern. UGA under Richt is considered one of the best teams in the SEC, up there with Florida and LSU. Truthfully, UGA is merely the best of the SEC's second tier, a group that generally includes Auburn, Tennessee, and Arkansas. UGA is the best of the second tier because they regularly defeat the other second tier teams plus those on the third and fourth rungs.
But they are not first tier, because quite simply they rarely if ever beat the SEC's best, one good enough to finish in the top three or top five. As a matter of fact, their two SEC titles (in 2002 and 2005) came in what were considered down years for the conference.
The LSU team that UGA beat in the SEC title game represents the best that Richt has defeated, and in that game they knocked out LSU's starting QB on the first drive. And please note that UGA went on to be upset by West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.
Add to this the head to head comparison between Mark Richt and Nick Saban. Richt is in his first coaching job. Saban is in his fourth. Advantage: Saban. Saban has experience as an NFL coordinator and head coach. Richt has neither. Advantage: Saban.
Saban is incontrovertibly a better defensive coordinator than Richt is an offensive coordinator. Not only that, but Saban's offensive coordinators at LSU and Alabama have been more aggressive and innovative than has Richt at either UGA or FSU. Take away the Charlie Ward shotgun years at FSU—which wasn't even Richt's idea—and he merely runs the same pro-style offense that you see practically everywhere else in college football.
That leads into another issue: Saban's schemes better fit his talent than Richt's. Richt's schemes are great with the rare talent that you can get to a powerhouse program in Florida, California, or Texas that has the luxury of having a clear talent edge on everyone else in every game but two, maybe three, a year.
But at a school that will never consistently have elite dropback QBs and pass blocking OLs, playmaking WRs, dominant DLs, or true cover CBs, and is in a conference with five other programs that have comparable or better talent, it is a recipe for frustration.
While Richt is willing to pretend that he is in Tallahassee or Miami (his previous two stops) dominating ACC and Big East lilliputians with quick OLs that can pass block, tall WRs that can run routes and catch, and accurate QBs that can make complex reads, Saban (after trying and failing with a pro style offense at Michigan State) has run simpler offenses that do not require highly skilled talent at LSU and Alabama.
It is not just the offense. Many have wondered why UGA recruits extremely athletic and versatile LBs and safeties only to diminish their effectiveness in a defense that features DLs and CBs.
Again, it works if you are at FSU, Miami, Texas, Florida, or USC where you will almost always have future NFL starters at DL and CB. But as UGA's last No. 1 draft pick at DL was David Pollack in 2005 (and he was drafted as an OLB) and at CB was Champ Bailey in 1999, it would behoove Richt to dump the Miami/FSU defenses and run schemes that let his best athletes make plays.
UGA does not even have to adopt a 3-4 defense, but rather use a 4-3 philosophy that allows the middle of their defense (LBs and safeties) to be the playmakers that the DLs and CBs aren't going to be.
While UGA will win a lot of games while Richt is head coach, they will never be a true national title contender. This is not to say that they won't be very good over a long period of time and wind up having a season where everything goes right for them and they win a title. They just won't be one of the teams that is in the thick of things year after year.
That should be good enough for UGA fans, provided that Richt lives up to his prominently stated evangelical Christian beliefs by recruiting players that generally stay out of trouble and graduate.
(I am serious UGA fans, your program may have never been elite, but it has never been notorious either. If Mark Richt can't win without criminals and people that have no interest in or aptitude for university level work, then UGA needs to hire someone who can. Jim Grobe at Wake Forest: there's a start!)
The bottom line is that as long as Mark Richt is UGA's head coach, never be surprised when he comes up small in games like this, especially when Nick Saban is on the other sideline.
And as a side note: Yes, Georgia should be very concerned with Georgia Tech, who will do a much better job getting the most out of their talent than Richt ever will. And even as the No. 2 school in Georgia basically resigned to players that do not fit in UGA's scheme, there is a lot of said talent to be had.