ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 03: Doug Martin #22 of the Boise State Broncos spins away from Sanders Commings #19 of the Georgia Bulldogs at Georgia Dome on September 3, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
If Dawg fans were looking for signs that the failures of 2010 have been corrected, Georgia's performance in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff didn't give them many.
Six years ago I sat down in my friend Melissa's apartment in Birmingham, Alabama, cracked open a beer and prepared for a Georgia-Boise State game that I was pretty sure would be a dogfight. I'd barely had time to take the first pull off my beer before Tony Taylor yanked Jared Zabransky's very first pass out of the sky, igniting the Bronco meltdown and starting the Dawgs off on an eventual SEC championship run.
Ever since that glorious season, it seems like the Dawgs and Broncos have been headed in opposite directions. But what shocked and dismayed me as the final seconds ticked off the clock Saturday night wasn't how much can change in six years; what struck me was how little can change in one.
Seriously, it was all for this? The staff shakeup, the overhaul of the strength and conditioning program, the "Dream Team" recruiting class, the shedding of dead weight on the roster -- all that just to look like the same team that embarrassed itself by only scoring single digits against a Conference USA team in the Liberty Bowl? Look, if the only thing that happened Saturday night was Georgia losing to Boise State, it wouldn't matter; that was the No. 5 team in the nation we were up against, and while some Dawg fans may have professed amazement that a mid-major team from Idaho could be favored over us less than 70 miles from our own campus, the idea of Boise State as a B.S. team is slowly going the way of the flat-earth theory. In a vacuum, there's no shame in losing to a team that good, maybe even by two touchdowns. But it was the way we lost, not showing any discernible improvement over the tipping-point campaign of 2010, that's causing people to rip their hair out at the roots this morning. Let's go down the list:
The offensive line. Improvement? None that I could see. Everyone knew last year's line was a major disappointment, so between that reckoning and the departure of Stacy Searels and his allegedly toxic attitude from the coaching staff, there was a sense that things had to get better, even if only because of the can't-get-much-worse theorem. But what we saw Saturday night was a line that still can't get out of its own way. Our linemen opened up precisely zero holes in the running game (together, Isaiah Crowell and Richard Samuel averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per rush), which you could've blamed on a thin backfield except for the fact that the line didn't pass-block for squat, either: Aaron Murray got sacked six times and got flushed out of the pocket on every other play. The only thing positive you could say about the unit was that our much-discussed depth issues don't seem so pressing anymore, now that we know our starters aren't much good to begin with.
The new strength and conditioning regimen. Remember all the talk about how our players were having to send cell-phone pictures of their meals to the S&C coaches for approval? Yeah, I pretty much stopped caring about that around the time our third or fourth player limped off the field with leg cramps. How you get that cramped up in an air-conditioned dome with ample opportunity for proper hydration is anyone's guess, but between that and the noticeable wilting of the defense that began before halftime, it certainly didn't look like the new workout regimen or nutritional protocols had accomplished anything other than spawning a few breathless offseason notebook items about how big Kwame Geathers looks. (Geathers, in case you were curious, fell victim to cramps along with all the others.) Does anyone doubt that 49-year-old Herschel Walker, who watched the game from the Georgia sideline, could've suited up right there and schooled anyone on the Bulldogs' roster?
The so-called new attitude on the part of the coaches. The two offensive philosophies on display Saturday were a study in contrasts. Boise's motto seemed to be "Keep doing it until the other guys figure out how to stop it," and they did, firing ball after ball over the middle to receivers unencumbered by any defenders within five yards of them. Mike Bobo, meanwhile, went with the same mantra that's been driving Georgia fans bananas for two or three seasons now: "Do it once and then never do it again." Brandon Boykin's sound-barrier-breaking 80-yard TD run in the first quarter got everyone hot and bothered, and then Boykin didn't take the field on offense for the remainder of the game. Once it became clear Georgia's O-line was getting no push whatsoever up the middle, the Dawgs had some intermittent success bouncing Isaiah Crowell outside, but just when it almost looked like Crowell was getting into a rhythm they'd always go back to an ineffectual Crowell or Richard Samuel run up the middle. Rather than sticking with what works, Bobo has been spending an inordinate amount of time and energy the last three or so seasons trying to outsmart opposing defenses, but he has yet to outsmart anyone other than himself.
The contrast on the other side of the ball was just as stark. At least until they started losing a bit of focus with a sizable lead in the second half, Boise's defense read Georgia's formations expertly, diagnosed the play and blew the Bulldog O-line off the ball. Nearly two years after the dismissal of Willie Martinez, on the other hand, Georgia's defense still doesn't seem to know how to react to a play until the ball is already in the air and it's too late for 90 percent of the things they might have considered doing to stop it. For Todd Grantham, this is starting to turn into a Barack-Obama-and-the-economy situation -- he's been around long enough that blaming it on the previous guy isn't gonna fly much longer. It does look like the Dawgs have been successful in finding more appropriate talent to fit Grantham's 3-4 alignment -- a year after finishing 56th in the country in run defense, the substantially bigger D-line held the Broncos to only 3.5 yards per rush attempt, including only 2.4 a carry from scatback Doug Martin -- but the back seven never appeared to figure out something as simple as a slant route across the middle. And, of course, it didn't help that most of the players were walking around with their hands on their hips with a few minutes still left in the first half.
Now, for all the caveats. Yeah, Boise is a team with underrated talent and a phenomenally bright coaching staff, every bit deserving of their top-five ranking. Yes, Georgia's still 0-0 in the SEC, and at least they know what they need to work on now rather than having sunshine blown up their collective rear end by a meaningless blowout over a bought-and-paid-for patsy. But if knowing is half the battle, actually doing something about it is the other half, and that's not something Georgia's coaching staff has proven especially adept at over the past few seasons.
You hate to start shoveling dirt on Mark Richt's grave after one game, particularly a game against a team as elite as the Broncos. Richt didn't have to win this game to save his job any more than he had to win any of the others. But he did have to show his team was making progress, and after what we were led to believe was eight months of soul-searching in the Classic City, it's still hard to find any one area in which the Dawgs look like they've improved at all relative to 2010.
The 2005 win over Boise and the conference title run it kicked off never seemed longer ago than it did Saturday night as legions of Georgia fans filed prematurely toward the exits. The disasters of 2010, though, still seem very fresh. Consequently, it's getting harder and harder to recall those mental pictures of Richt as an elite coach, easier and easier to think of him as someone who just doesn't have the answers for keeping the Dawgs competitive in the SEC. Win or lose, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff needed to be a game in which Richt started to reverse that trend, but a year after the worst season of Richt's tenure, none of the trend lines seem to be changing direction. Dawg fans might've wanted to spend Saturday getting nostalgic about 2005, but it's starting to look like they may spend more and more time reminiscing about 2000 -- the last time Georgia set out to look for a new head coach.