By this time last year, Georgia was firmly enthroned as a consensus No. 1 or No. 2. Sure, there were a few doubters here and there -- especially among the SEC media types*, enthralled as they were by Tim Tebow -- but the eyes of much of the nation peered at Athens.
Oh, yeah. That.
And with that, Mark Richt -- the most successful SEC coach over the last eight seasons -- would go yet another year without the national title that has eluded him since he came to Athens.
Richt's record at Georgia has really been almost awe-inspiring: 82-22 overall (.788), 46-18 in the SEC (.719). He has two conference championships to his name, another pair of division crowns and six 10-win seasons to go along with his nine-win campaign and his inaugural eight-year season.
But he has never hoisted the crystal football. Never even played for it, in fact.
Some insist that this is more than just a run of bad luck, but an indictment of the system itself. After all, BCS critics like Dr. Saturday (joined, it should be noted, by the Mayor -- an avowed playoff opponent) point out that Georgia's 13-1 season in 2002 was roughly equivalent to other SEC champions that went on to win the BCS title.
What's the difference between those heroic conquerors and Richt's best team in '02? The external circumstances broke in their favor, and they didn't for Georgia.
As a criticism of the BCS, the statement is rather thin. Every postseason system in American sports has standards that shift from year to year and "external circumstances" that decide who gets in and who gets left out.
Take the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros -- please. In all seriousness, both the Cardinals and the Astros won enough games in 2008 to win the NL Central in 2007. But the Cubs -- who won the division with a record barely above .500 in 2007 -- did better in 2008, winning 96 games (up from 85). You might really apologize to the 2007 Mets and Padres, who both won more games than did the Cubs that year, and in tougher divisions than the NL Central, but stayed home. And St. Louis can hardly claim the moral high ground, having won the World Series in 2006 despite winning two fewer regular-season games than did the Philadelphia Phillies, who didn't make the postseason at all. No one calls the Cardinals "Mythical World Series Champions." (I've tackled the "mythical" label in more detail here.)
Yes, I realize the slight difference in the examples. After all, those baseball teams that did go to the playoffs won their divisions, much as Richt won the SEC title -- and Richt sat at home. But had he won the SEC title with nine or 10 wins, no one would be protesting that he "deserved" a shot at the title or was somehow deprived by the system. In fact, barring automatic berths for conference champions (a system that is practically unworkable and becomes even more unfair than baseball's postseason), the winner of the SEC championship would not have a guaranteed path to a college football playoff. You might say their fate would be decided by, um, "external circumstances."
(This doesn't even account for the fact that there is no evidence suggesting that Richt would have had a significant chance at making the title game in a playoff format. A better one than without being in the postseason, of course. But once you get to the postseason, you actually increase the randomness with a playoff system by increasing the number of games that can be decided by an almost infinite number of contingencies.)
And while we're on the subject of the BCS vs. the playoffs, there's one nonsensical argument that keeps circulating this year. After all, while I might not agree with Dr. Saturday's views on the subject, there is some logic behind them. Not so with the vogue rhetorical weapon wielded by those, like Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who compare the BCS to communism. After all, as Blutarsky and others have noted, some playoff supporters want "a redistribution of the wealth that college football generates." [Emphasis C&F's.] (Another example of this argument by Blutarsky is here.)
Enough about the BCS system; back to Richt's fate within it and what it says about his coaching ability. After all, pointing to Richt's hefty list of accomplishments, Dr. Saturday gets to his real argument in regards to Richt and the crystal football.
Everyone in Richt's peer group this decade has a crystal ball to his name; based on his record, there's no reason (except maybe the presence of rising juggernaut Florida next door) to think Georgia won't join that club eventually. But he shouldn't have to when the record is perfectly capable of speaking for itself.
The Doctor has a point. Even on a granular level, Richt does better than most of his predecessors. In his eight years, Richt has defeated nine of 11 SEC opponents and Georgia Tech at a better clip than the school's historical record against those opponents. (The two exceptions are Florida, against whom he has done substantially worse, and South Carolina, essentially a wash.)
But still -- Richt is in a conference with four coaches who have won national titles, even after the firings of one national title winning coach and one coach who truly was robbed of a chance to play for it all. (Unlike Richt, Tommy Tuberville won all his games in 2004; had Richt done that in 2002, we wouldn't be having this conversation.)
As much as it pains a South Carolina fan to say this, I hope Richt wins a national title -- in part because he deserves it, and in part because it removes the possibility that some fans will always remember his record with an asterisk. We live in a society that measures sporting accomplishments by championships, real or mythical.
For Richt's legacy, like it or not, the crystal football matters. Dr. Saturday is right to say that it shouldn't. But it does.
NEXT WEEK: LSU
MONDAY: Georgia Looks for Direction
TUESDAY: Dawg Days
WEDNESDAY: The Secret Life of Evil Richt; Does Mark Richt Do Best When Expectations Are Low?; How Deep are the Dawgs?
THURSDAY: Calling the Canines
EARLIER TODAY: Athens Answers