The Georgia Bulldogs and the Boise State Broncos tee it off in the Georgia Dome in a mere 15 days. Being the first game of the season and an out-of-the-ordinary matchup the game has generated quite a bit of speculation and even more trash talk.
The game is undeniably important for Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs, but just how important is the matchup with the Broncos? Is it merely an overhyped media event pitting a coach on the hot seat against a small conference school with an agenda? Or are the game's implications much more vast?
I would assert that the game against Boise State is the most important game of Mark Richt’s career. This game will shape the remainder of his time in Athens and ultimately be a major factor in his job security.
Mark Richt’s seat has never been hotter. After three consecutive disappointing seasons the fire under his britches has been stoked, prodded and probably even had a little kerosene poured on it. The 2011 season is not a make or break season for Richt; it is a fix-it season. Things are broken in Athens, at least they were when we last saw the Dawgs take the field in Memphis. Richt has one year to make things right and it starts on September 3.
While speculation abounds as to what it will take for Richt to keep his job I can guarantee you one thing: a loss to Boise State won’t help his chances; no loss will. The general outside consensus seems to believe that a run at the SEC championship game is necessary and that may not be too off-base.
The East is widely considered weak in relation to the West this season, and Georgia avoids Alabama, LSU and Arkansas (three top-15 teams) while getting a depleted Auburn and Mississippi State at home.
Within conference play Georgia’s two most difficult games will be against the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Florida Gators. The Dawgs get the Cocks at home and the Gators following a bye.
South Carolina is the consensus favorite to win the SEC East and many have pegged this second week game as the most crucial of the season for Georgia, but I tend to disagree. I’m not convinced that the Gamecocks’ SEC championship game run in 2010 was the start of a trend and not simply an outlier in performance. In Spurrier’s first season in Columbia (2005) USC lost four pre-bowl games. In each of the next four seasons the team suffered five setbacks. Last season the Gamecocks suffered four setbacks before losing to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Were the Cocks really much improved or was the East just down? Their record shows little overall growth.
The Gamecocks return fifth year senior quarterback and criminal Stephen Garcia, stud running back Marcus Lattimore and one of the best receivers in all of football in Alshon Jeffery. However, the lack of consistency that has characterized the team for years and the Cocks’ difficult schedule (at Georgia, at Mississippi State, at Arkansas) make it hard for me to believe that a loss to Carolina would eliminate Georgia from SEC contention. The South Carolina Gamecocks are going to lose some games; they always do.
I’m not sure what to expect from Will Muschamp’s Florida Gators. I do like the fact that Georgia has an off-week prior to the game and I do like the fact that the Gators will arrive in Jacksonville following a three-game stretch that pits them against Alabama, LSU and Auburn with the latter two games coming on the road. I expect the Gators to limp into Jacksonville with at least two losses on their tab and hopefully a little frustration.
Admittedly, it would be unlikely (but not impossible) for Georgia to suffer setbacks to both South Carolina and Florida and still win the SEC East, but I don’t foresee both games resulting in defeat if improvements have been made in Athens this offseason—which is what makes the Boise State game so important in the first place.
The Boise State game will set the tone for the rest of the season and we’ll learn a lot on September 3rd. Have the Bulldogs gotten better? How are the new guys on the offensive line? Is Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme finally ready to go? Will the Dawgs open the game focused and have energy to compete in the fourth quarter?
If there are many negative answers to these questions then a loss to Boise State is imminent. I have a really hard time picturing the Bulldogs rebounding from a loss to the Broncos and improving enough to beat a more physical South Carolina team in Week 2. I find it even harder to believe that the Bulldogs could rebound from a disappointing 0-2 start.
A loss to Boise State would surely be the beginning of the end for Mark Richt. This game is the most important of his career.