Unlike our last bowl meeting with Michigan State, nobody gets to come out of this one feeling good about themselves. If that's what it takes to motivate us to do better, then so be it.
Almost exactly three years ago I sat down and wrote a post for my personal blog congratulating the Bulldogs on their bowl performance and a season that had produced 10 wins and a national ranking. Obviously the season hadn't quite been up to expectations -- we'd started it with national-title aspirations and finished it in a non-BCS bowl against a Big Ten also-ran. But the 24-12 victory over Michigan State, proved that we could still get it done against a name-brand opponent and that Mark Richt was still a coach we could be proud of, someone who still had the program on the right track.
I remember catching a lot of flack in the comments thread from a certain trollish Georgia fan who was viscerally dissatisfied with the team's performance and convinced I was making excuses for Richt. His criticisms were no more thoughtful than those you'd get from an AJC.com poster -- his recommended course of action was to fire Richt immediately and throw a ton of money at then Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, a horrendously awful plan even without the benefit of hindsight. But even if only by accident, his doom-filled projections for the Georgia program turned out to be closer to the mark (for the next couple seasons, at least) than my sunny ones. By that time the following year, I'd learned a little bit about being too satisfied with a bowl win and the dangers of being too willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt.
So here we are, three years later, in remarkably similar circumstances. Georgia has just finished up a 10-win season, one that will probably keep us in the top 25 of the final rankings, though with precious few of those wins coming against good teams, much less elite ones. We've just played Michigan State in a January bowl game -- a decent one, but not a BCS game. The difference is that we lost to the Spartans this time, which should prevent anyone, myself included, from heading into next season with a feeling of contentedness or relief.
And as disappointed as I am to have lost that game, particularly in the manner in which we lost it, that might not actually be a terrible thing.
In this business, complacency is a job-killer. It killed off Phil Fulmer and chased Tommy Tuberville off of the Plains, and very nearly claimed Mark Richt's scalp before he pulled the Georgia program out of its steep dive and reeled off 10 straight wins this year. Complacency is what inspires people like me -- and, I dare say, like Mark Richt -- to look at a 10-win season and a bowl victory over Michigan State and assume that things are on the right track, creeping evidence to the contrary.
But I doubt that anyone's feeling fat, happy or complacent after handing a win to an underdog Spartan team in triple OT and becoming the first SEC team in two years to lose to a Big Ten squad in a January bowl game. This time, unlike last time, we don't have a highlight reel of Knowshon Moreno cartwheeling into the end zone and the team proudly hoisting a bowl trophy to obscure the real issues that still exist -- special-teams failings at crunch time, a hot mess at the running-back position, an offensive line that can't block consistently for them anyway. Those issues, and not a trophy ceremony at midfield or a celebratory jaunt to Ybor City, will be the lingering memories from this game, and though it might sound like a cynical attempt to rationalize a dispiriting loss, I'm fine with that.
The other difference between this and our last postseason meeting with the Spartans, of course, is that whereas we were headed on a downward trajectory on New Year's Day 2009 (even if we didn't know it yet), we're headed in a very different direction right now. Last year we lost seven games; this year we won 10 and earned an outright division championship. Yet that hopeful situation has its own pitfalls, the danger of thinking things are better than they actually are. I've worried before (occasionally on this site) about our fans and coaches reading too much into a 10-game winning streak that came against mostly mediocre opposition. Likewise, with the nature of the competition in mind, I've worried that this season might not be a harbinger of things to come but rather a "dead-cat bounce." And I've worried that even if we do continue to consistently put away mediocre competition and win division titles, that our coaches and perhaps even some of our fans will grow satisfied with that, content to rule over our small-time SEC East fiefdom while other programs go on to bigger and better things. (I've heard the words "Buffalo Bills" tossed out there a couple times with respect to our future prospects in the SEC Championship Game, and yeah, that prospect scares the hell out of me.)
All those outcomes are the kind of thing complacency causes. Three years ago, we came out of a bowl win over Michigan State with that kind of complacency. Today, as we lick our wounds from a triple-overtime loss, maybe we won't. I mean, maybe Mark Richt is satisfied with a 10-win season in which we beat all the so-so opponents but lost to all the really good ones -- it still beats what we did last year -- but I don't get the impression that he is. If this loss is what it takes to remind him and his staff that the running game and offensive line need work, that someone needs to take responsibility for special teams, and that oh yeah, it's time to start opening up the offense a bit in the clutch, then the Outback Bowl might turn out to be one of the best losses we've had to endure in quite a while.
We're told by our parents and teachers at an early age that mistakes are OK as long as you learn from them. We'll find out over the next year how badly Mark Richt and his coaches and players want to learn from this one. We already know they're a good team -- just like the 2008 squad was -- but if losing a heartbreaker to Michigan State is what it takes to spur them to become a great one, then the disappointment of this most recent loss might be blessedly short-lived.