If you need a complete preview of the Georgia Bulldogs from a fan's perspective, there are few better ways to get it than to ask a few questions of the Mayor -- Kyle King over at Dawg Sports. Kyle is known for his eloquent and often long -- but never long-winded -- posts on all things Georgia. So we asked the questions and let him do the typing.
Just to get it out of the way: Hot seat.
Kyle: No, I'm comfortable. Thanks for asking. Oh, wait, you mean . . . sorry, my bad.
Mark Richt's job was never in jeopardy. Had he retained Willie Martinez and suffered through a third straight disappointing season in 2010, he might have faced a make-or-break year in 2011. The sweeping changes to the defensive staff bought Coach Richt at least an additional year, and probably two.
It is noteworthy that Mark Richt has raised the profile of the Georgia program to the point where an eight-win season is considered calamitous; in the eight seasons immediately preceding his arrival in Athens, after all, the Bulldogs won more than eight games just twice. Mark Richt's floor is only barely below Ray Goff's and Jim Donnan's ceilings.
Beyond that, Coach Richt has built up considerable goodwill with the Georgia fan base, the importance of which cannot be underestimated in these trying times. In the last year, Larry Munson has retired, Damon Evans has resigned in the midst of a scandal, Michael Adams has been publicly pilloried on account of the audit and ensuing book that painted him in a very unflattering light, and Vince Dooley has become a Tennessee fan.
Guys who represent the University of Georgia well and who are still on the job in Athens are starting to seem like an endangered species, so Mark Richt has earned a fair degree of patience by averaging ten wins a year and being (in the wake of Bobby Johnson's abrupt retirement) the SEC coach least likely to embarrass his program.
Absent a complete collapse, he'll have at least until 2012 to turn it around, and I have every confidence the Bulldogs will be back among the SEC elite well before Mark Richt's seat even becomes appreciably warm. In short, the "Mark Richt is on the hot seat" meme ranks right up there with "Steve Spurrier is going to quit this year and go play golf," "Urban Meyer is going to be the next head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish," and "Nick Saban is going to be the next head coach of the Cleveland Browns." All of those are expressions of wishful thinking from rival fans and SEO-minded columnists, and none of them bears any relation to reality.
After a couple of disappointing seasons (at least in comparison to expectations), what would be a successful season this year?
Kyle: I suppose you're looking for something a bit more specific than a Vince Dooley-like call for "significant improvement." Because the Bulldogs' strength of schedule is front-loaded with early dates against South Carolina and Arkansas, it's entirely possible we could see substantial steps forward made, yet still have to suffer through an 0-2 start in SEC play.
For all the animadversions (definition here) cast against us, though, we Bulldog fans are patient, as long as we see progress. Tubby Smith's first year at the helm of the Georgia basketball program produced a won-lost record no different from that witnessed in Hugh Durham's last year; Mark Richt's initial autumn as the Bulldogs' head football coach generated the same 8-4 finish that Jim Donnan's final fall did.
Fans were upbeat, if not satisfied, in both of those cases because there were clear signs that the programs were moving in the right direction. The frustration of the last several years (and of the last two in particular) is that it hasn't been one damn thing after another, it's been the same damn thing over and over: poor tackling, personal foul penalties, turnovers, soft zones, and getting nickeled and dimed to death by underneath receivers left open in the gap between the linemen and the linebackers. As long as we see problems being addressed effectively, we'll be tolerant of the process of getting them fixed. I don't mind having to leave my car in the shop for a week, as long as I know it's going to run right when I get it back.
Personally, I think the Bulldogs are going to go 8-4, but I also think they're going to start out 1-2, so a 7-2 stretch run definitely would show progress. However, I think Larry Munson was an optimist, so I suspect the average Georgia fan would consider 2010 a success if Georgia goes 9-3 through the regular season, finishes in second place in the Eastern Division, and earns a New Year's Day bowl bid.
How good do you Aaron Murray will be this year? How good does he need to be given the supporting cast?
Kyle: "Good" is a relative term where Georgia quarterbacks are concerned. If you were an NFL general manager in need of a quarterback, and you could draft any Bulldog QB in his prime, you'd be looking at guys like Zeke Bratkowski, Matthew Stafford, and Fran Tarkenton. The 1959 SEC championship season notwithstanding, there's a limit to how successful that type of signal caller has been with any degree of consistency in the Classic City.
Here's the bottom line: Eric Zeier threw for 11,153 yards in college, and he went 2-2 against Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, Buck Belue, John Lastinger, and David Greene were game managers with more brain than arm, and all they ever did was win football games. Belue won a national championship in a Sugar Bowl in which he completed only one pass.
Aaron Murray has the luxury of playing behind an experienced offensive line, handing off to Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, and throwing to a quality receiving corps headlined by Orson Charles and A.J. Green. There's a reason why clichés become clichés: Murray will be plenty good enough, as long as he doesn't try to do too much. If he tries to be the hero too often, he could turn out to be the second coming of Joe Cox. If he lets the other fellows do their jobs, he'll be fine.
How much improvement do you expect to see out of the defense in the first year of Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme?
Kyle: Bear in mind that it was the Georgia fan base that once produced a blogger who adopted the moniker "I'm a Realist." We realize that the 3-4 isn't the magic bullet that's going to ameliorate every ill immediately, particularly since the Bulldogs lack a Terrence Cody-sized nose tackle.
We're all acutely conscious of the fact that there will be a learning curve for a defense that found it eye-opening when Scott Lakatos informed the defensive backs that they were allowed to pay attention to the location of the football while it was in flight. It's a new scheme, and it will take a while for the players to unlearn the bad habits Willie Martinez taught them. Unfortunately, practice doesn't always make perfect, but it often makes permanent.
Alabama provides a recent illustrative example: Nick Saban has guided the Crimson Tide to back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, but, before he got them there, they had to endure a rebuilding season that included a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. The Georgia program isn't as down as the Alabama program was when Coach Saban arrived, so I don't expect any losses to Sun Belt schools with multiple directional indicators in their nomenclatures, but there will be growing pains. We will endure them, because we know that, in the end, it will have been worth it.
More important choice: Georgia's next athletics director or the next Uga?
Kyle: My head says the former, but my heart says the latter. I have made no secret of my preference for Greg McGarity as a candidate to become the next athletic director at the University of Georgia. McGarity is an Athens native, a Georgia graduate, a former Bulldog athlete, and an administrator with experience working for Vince Dooley and for Jeremy Foley. As the second-in-command in the Florida athletics administration, he has learned a thing or two about how to make piles of cash while building championship programs in every sport without running afoul of the NCAA. Getting Greg McGarity home is job one.
Still, no one goes to Sanford Stadium hoping to spot the athletic director on the sideline, and there are no pregame ceremonies for the anointment of new administrators in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. This is the second time in recent years that we in Bulldog Nation have had to endure an interregnum between Ugas, and, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I feel a bit like a Roman Catholic awaiting the puff of white smoke from the Vatican.
At the end of the day, our interim athletic director is there to steady the ship, while Russ is on hand as the interim mascot for the purpose of winning games. The empty dog house on the sideline during the Bulldogs' home loss to Kentucky on senior night could not have been more emblematic of the disaster that was the 2009 season. I'll be pleased when Georgia has a new athletic director, but I will cheer when we have a new Uga.
We thank the Mayor for giving us his thoughts and remind you to check out Dawg Sports for your Georgia news and commentary during the season.