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The debacle in Columbia once again brought out the "underachiever" tag for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Do the statistics back that up?
Look: If it were only about career wins and losses, we'd be treating questions about Mark Richt's job security the same way we treat questions about Obama's birth certificate or whether Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon. You don't fire a guy with a 111-39 record and two SEC titles, someone with a winning percentage even higher than Vince Dooley's. It just isn't done.
But it's not only about career wins and losses, it's about the way those wins and losses come about, and against which teams they happen. In the article I wrote in the immediate aftermath of Georgia's disastrous loss to South Carolina, I lamented that Richt's Georgia teams seemed to have settled into a pattern: at least one humiliating blowout a year at the hands of a team against which we should've been competitive, no wins against truly elite teams, not much to get excited about in the postseason.
Is Georgia's recent record in that regard really that much worse than the programs we think of as "elite," though? Is Richt really lagging that far behind the nation's best? To find that out, I dug through the last four and a half season's worth of stats and records for Georgia and an assortment of benchmarks. I began with Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina, the current leaders in each of the SEC's divisions, and then threw in some high-profile teams from around the country — Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Southern California and Texas. The last three of those are particularly meaningful, as they've been perceived as "underachieving" in recent seasons despite being the flagship football programs in their respective states, with more than enough money and resources to build what should be juggernaut, national-title-caliber teams — exactly the position Georgia finds itself in now. And, just for good measure, I threw in Georgia Tech, both as the Dawgs' main in-state rival and an example of what UGA fans definitely don't want their program to turn into.
OVERALL WINNING PERCENTAGE, 2008-PRESENT
WINNING PERCENTAGE VS. RANKED TEAMS
The stats don't lie: Over the last four-plus seasons, the Georgia Bulldogs have had a worse record than South Carolina. That's less embarrassing than it might be given the fact that the Gamecocks have actually been a pretty good team over the past few years, but it's emblematic of how Richt's Dawgs are in the process of getting passed by South Carolina in the SEC East — something that would've been unthinkable not that long ago. And like it or not, Georgia's winning percentage at the moment is closer to Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech teams than it is to elite SEC squads like Alabama, LSU or Florida.
The numbers get worse if you're just talking about ranked teams. Georgia has won less than a third of its games against ranked opponents since 2008, even worse than Tech's record and substantially worse than Alabama's or LSU's. In case you were curious, Georgia's six wins came against Vanderbilt (No. 22) and LSU (no. 11) in 2008, who would finish a combined 15-11; Michigan State (No. 19) in the 2009 Capital One Bowl; Georgia Tech (No. 7) in 2009; and Auburn (No. 24) and Georgia Tech (No. 25) last season. Not exactly a murderer's row, then.
Incidentally, it was interesting to see that Oklahoma's record against ranked teams has actually been among the nation's best, in spite of the nickname "Big Game Bob" having been applied sarcastically to Bob Stoops ever since his high-profile BCS-bowl flops in 2006 and '07. If anyone's been blowing big games in the Big XII, it's Mack Brown, which has a lot to do with why once adoring Longhorn fans are now writing articles like this.
WINNING PERCENTAGE VS. THE SPREAD
First, a caveat: The point spread doesn't represent what Vegas thinks will happen. It represents what Vegas thinks the bettors think will happen. So it's not really all that useful for anything other than a gauge of popular opinion — but that said, Georgia hasn't lived up to said opinion as well as its competitors have (though the gap is somewhat narrower than it is with their absolute winning percentage).
LOSSES BY MORE THAN ONE TOUCHDOWN (> 8 points)
LOSSES BY MORE THAN TWO TOUCHDOWNS (> 16 points)
The sample sizes are smaller here, so Georgia being down near the bottom of these lists isn't quite as bad as it looks. Still, 11 multiple-score losses for Georgia versus six for LSU and only three for Alabama, averaged out over the last four and a half years, means Georgia's taking one or two blowout losses per season that the top teams in the conference don't. And you don't have to be Nick Saban or Les Miles (or Chip Kelly or Urban Meyer, for that matter) to know that's not the recipe for staying in the national championship hunt.
BLOWN SECOND-HALF LEADS
Here too, Georgia is letting at least one game get away from them every season that Florida, Texas and LSU aren't. Granted, it's nice to have a second-half lead to blow, and Georgia's had more than a few. But holding on to those leads is one of the things separating elite squads from the merely OK. How much would the average Georgia fan give for a do-over of the third quarter against Georgia Tech in 2008? Or even that first drive against LSU in the second half of the conference title game last year?
There are a number of conclusions you can draw from all this, not all of them bad. For one thing, depending on the criteria you use, Georgia isn't that far behind, say, Texas or Florida. If Georgia has been underachieving, it hasn't been doing so to any worse a degree than a lot of upper-level programs underachieve from time to time.
But it's the sense that things are stuck in place and not appreciably improving that bothers me and a growing number of Georgia fans. A week ago, after the Dawgs had lost to South Carolina for a third straight year, I said it looked like the Gamecocks had truly passed us in the SEC East, and the numbers bear that out — since 2008, South Carolina has been winning more than we have whether you're talking about ranked teams, point spreads or overall victories. If Florida remains a juggernaut, and the Dawgs have put Tennessee firmly behind them only to get dusted off by South Carolina, then Georgia is only running in place and not making any real progress toward the goal of re-establishing control of the East Division.
To me, though, the most unnerving fact is this: In just about every category, Georgia is closer to Georgia Tech than Alabama, Florida or LSU. Once upon a time that might've been good enough for the majority of Bulldog Nation, but it isn't anymore. We like to crow "We run this state" after beating the Yellow Jackets on what has become a more or less annual basis, and that perception of in-state dominance is hardly insignificant in a state that produces as much talent as the Peach State does. The problem is we're not just competing with the Jackets for those recruits. We're competing with the Tide, the Gators and the Bayou Bengals, and frequently with the Seminoles and the Tigers of Auburn and Clemson as well. If Georgia can't break free of "good but not great" status, the top high-school players in this state will start getting the impression that they've got better chances of competing for SEC and national titles elsewhere. For all the excellent recruiting classes he's brought to Athens, that's an impression Richt hasn't done much to dispel.
None of this is meant to be an indication that the situation in Athens is hopeless. The gap between Georgia and the nation's elite teams is definitely there, but it's not insurmountably huge. The question is how committed the fans, coaches and university administration are to crossing it. If winning nine or ten games a season, beating Georgia Tech annually and going to a so-so Jan. 1 bowl is good enough, then the Dawgs are right where they need to be. If Georgia as a program has a right to aspire to something higher than that, though, it's clear Mark Richt's job is far from finished.