ATHENS, GA - SEPTEMBER 10: Melvin Ingram #6 of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates with Shaq Wilson #54 and D.J Swearinger #36 after Ingram recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on September 10, 2011 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Nearly everything about the Bulldogs looked better against South Carolina than against Boise State, yet it didn't matter in the end.
"Cocaine," Robin Williams once said before he stopped being funny and started being insufferable, "is God's way of saying you're making too much money." In the same vein, what happens here could be God's way of saying Mark Richt isn't meant to be Georgia's coach anymore:
Now, you could spin a play like that any number of ways. One way would be to chalk it up to just pure godawful luck, and I have to admit that was my first reaction as I watched it. Sitting on the floor of my living room, teeth clenched, listing at a 45-degree angle as if, by tilting the horizon just so, I could tip Melvin Ingram back and make him roll to the other side of the field, I thought: Have you ever seen anyone lose a game like this? I mean, I'm sure it's happened, but I know I wasn't there to see it. At first glance, it certainly looked more like fate than anything a coach could reasonably be expected to plan for.
But there's a school of thought that says you make your own luck, and nobody on Georgia's side of the line of scrimmage was making much luck on that play. I mean, surely somebody was supposed to block Jadeveon Clowney on that play, right? And who told Aaron Murray it was a good idea to hold the ball out like a beer mug during a toast at Oktoberfest while you're being sacked?
We used to come up with wild-ass ways to win close, pivotal, tension-fraught games -- David Pollack's zero-yard pick-six in 2002, the late forced fumble against Vanderbilt that turned around the '07 season -- but now we come up with ways to lose them.
And you know this wasn't the first time: There was the missed block that snuffed out our last attempt at a scoring drive against Arkansas last year, the second-half turnoverpalooza against Kentucky the year before that . . . heck, it wasn't even the first time in this game (you don't gobble up three TDs on defense/special teams without your opponent at least setting the table for you). For whatever reason, things like that don't seem to happen to, say, Nick Saban or Les Miles. (Seems like Les is the one making it happen to others most of the time.) Whatever coaching they've done to keep their players from crumbling in clutch situations like that, we don't do it particularly well.
And yet -- and yet, you hate to lay all this at Mark Richt's feet as a failure of coaching, because the Georgia team that squared off against the Gamecocks on Saturday was altogether more poised (not to mention entertaining) than the one that staggered drunkenly through the previous week's game against Boise State. The offensive line opened up bigger holes for the running backs (and by the second half was even giving Aaron Murray time to make some brilliant throws); the defense wasn't standing around huffing and puffing like Charlie Weis after his biweekly minute on the treadmill; heck, you could even make a case that, for all but a few critical plays of the game, Mark Richt outcoached Steve Spurrier.
(Even Richt probably would've given Marcus Lattimore more than 12 carries through the first three quarters, for example, particularly if his quarterback was playing like honey-baked ass and said RB had gone off for 182 yards in the teams' previous meeting.)
But thanks to Spurrier's eventual revelation with regards to Lattimore, plus those three bizarre defense/special-teams scores, none of it ended up mattering. And now we're left with a quandary: Is this team actually good enough to pull out of this flat spin and make something of the 2011 season?
I mean, if the Dawgs had gone through another Boise State-style slog and caught another two- (or three-) score beatdown, we could be pretty confident about what the rest of the season had in store: a few lopsided wins against body-bag opponents, no wins in any games of consequence, and then a (hopefully amicable) parting of ways between the program and Mark Richt come December. Now, though, we only know we're decent enough to not completely embarrass ourselves against the rest of our schedule. And it's impossible to say how many wins that'll translate into, knowing that we can look superb on offense, show improvement on defense and still come up with ways to drop the ball (perhaps even literally) in the end.
OK, so we're better than we thought we were as we were stuck in traffic leaving the Georgia Dome a week ago. Can anyone say with any degree of confidence that that'll mean anything when we go up against Mississippi State or Tennessee? To say nothing of Florida?
As for what this means for Mark Richt . . . it's impossible to come up with a hard-and-fast prediction there, either. Within an hour of the loss, I was asked by numerous people -- girlfriend, Twitter followers, the guy working the counter of the mom-'n'-pop pizzeria where I went foraging for comfort food -- whether this meant he was toast. My not-all-that-succinct response is this: Starting 0-2, as ugly as it looks right now, isn't enough on its own to kill the Richt era. Not recovering from that start, though, might be.
If the Dawgs somehow run the table from here on out and wind up 10-2, that'd mean wins over Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech and most likely a trip to the SEC Championship Game, and by that point not one Georgia fan would remember what happened the first two weeks of September. That's absolute-best-case stuff, though, and you'd have to be Zolofted to within an inch of your life not to spot three or four more potential losses on the schedule -- particularly with the mindset our players have to be in right now. And I'm not judging them, either: If I were in their shoes I know I'd be glad to have a I-AA tuneup next week instead of an actual game.
And maybe I'm making too much of a funeral dirge out of this in the first place. Granted, I don't hang out on the message boards that much, or at all, but the response from the majority of the Georgia blogosphere has been shockingly positive considering we've started 0-2 for the first time since I was a sophomore living in McWhorter Hall. The offense rocked out, the defense continued to plug up the middle and looked way better against the pass, our special teams remain peerless . . . take out the fake punt and the defensive scores and the Dawgs beat the Gamecocks going away. So why couldn't we win eight or nine or even ten games down the stretch?
I'd like to believe we could, not just for Mark Richt's sake but for everybody's. Until we get to a mental place where we start looking for ways to win games rather than give them away, though, it's a 50-50 proposition at best. And I'll still be spending every Saturday afternoon for the rest of this season wondering which one of those things the team has shown up to do.