You know that Georgia has had a bad weekend when its fans are all looking back to the Jim Donnan era for analogies. Doug Gillett has latched onto the '98 Tennessee game, a game in which Georgia entered as a home favorite and left with a 19-point loss that crushed the Dawgs' hopes of a national, conference, or even divisional title. Doug explains:
On Twitter I noticed a lot of comparisons to the "blackout" debacle against Alabama in 2008, but they don't quite fit: That Georgia team kept battling against an insurmountable lead and actually succeeded in making the final score look respectable. No, Tennessee '98 is the historical analogue that fits best here, and not just because of the lopsided score or the presence of "Gameday." It fits because of where Georgia had been coming from, what each game said about where Georgia was at that moment, and what Georgia could look forward to. None of it's going to make Bulldog Nation feel very good about itself.
On Saturday night, I was also thinking of the Donnan era, but my focus was on his last game in Sanford Stadium. Georgia entered the season ranked #10. Donnan, never one to tamp down expectations, referred to the team as the one that he had waited his entire life to coach. Georgia had Quincy Carter entering his third year as a starter and a roster loaded with talent from several consecutive years of good recruiting. (Does any of this sound familiar to Dawg fans?) Georgia started the year with a disastrous performance in Columbia in its first SEC game, losing 21-10 as Carter threw five interceptions. The Dawgs then muddled their way through the season, beating Tennessee for the first time in ten tries, but adding their customary loss in Jacksonville and an overtime loss on the Plains.
Georgia entered the Georgia Tech game at 7-3 and with a two-game losing streak to the Jackets. Quincy Carter was "injured," so Cory Phillips started under center. (In a move that Georgia fans would later appreciate, Donnan did not take the redshirt off of David Greene when Carter's services were no longer required.) On an overcast day in Athens, the Jackets beat the Dawgs decisively. The first half started with the less-than-lightning-fast George Godsey scoring untouched on 33-yard run and ended with Darryl Smith giving Georgia Tech a 27-3 halftime lead with a 70-yard interception return. Georgia fought gamely in the second half, but never got the game into single-digits, losing 27-15. The fact that the Dawgs could only run for 26 yards on 18 carries left the impression that Georgia had been dominated physically. Donnan was gone a matter of days later with only the most melancholy trip to Hawai'i imaginable remaining.
Contrary to the impressions of many, the Georgia fan base does not have unreasonable expectations. They lionize Vince Dooley, whose career in Athens consisted of one outstanding period (1980-83) and then a series of peaks and valleys. While I'm sure Dooley took some criticism over the first 15 years for not being Bear Bryant, that did not become a fireable offense. Likewise, Dawg fans can accept Richt's Georgia not being on the level of Urban Meyer's Florida or Nick Saban's Alabama. There's no shame in being just a notch below the very best programs in America.
What Georgia fans have a harder time accepting is losing to teams that have disadvantages relative to the Dawgs. UGA is the flagship school for a state that produces more talent than any other, save for the big three (California, Florida, and Texas). The only in-state rival has a smaller fan base than the Dawgs, less historical success (certainly if we focus on modern history), and academic restrictions. Depending on the circumstances, Georgia fans can accept losing to Alabama (arguably the most accomplished of any college football program), Florida (the flagship program for a state with more talent than Georgia), LSU (the only major program in a state with a good amount of talent), and sometimes Tennessee (a top ten program, historically speaking).* It's one thing to lose a fight to a peer; it's another for a high school senior to get beaten up on the playground by a freshman.
* - Applying this reasoning to my alma mater, I can understand losing to Ohio State (a program that has major advantages over Michigan in that there is more football talent in Ohio than there is in Michigan and the Buckeyes don't have to share it with another Big Ten program) and Notre Dame (after all these years, still a recruiting powerhouse). Losing four in a row to Michigan State, on the other hand, burns me in tender places.
And that's where the Georgia Tech-South Carolina analogy comes in. As mentioned before, Georgia fans would not accept losing three in a row to Georgia Tech. The '98 and '99 games could be explained away as two tight games that arguably turned on some bad officiating. The '00 game was just a physical whipping, a sign of a program spinning out of control and demonstrably behind its little brother. Georgia fans are also going to have a hard time accepting a third straight loss to South Carolina, a team with little tradition of success that comes from a state with: (1) less talent than Georgia; and (2) an in-state rival that has traditionally dominated the Gamecocks. If South Carolina is demonstrably ahead of Georgia as a program, then something has gone right in Columbia and wrong in Athens. Additionally, while Georgia lost close games to South Carolina in 2010 and 2011, Saturday night's game was a brutal beating. There are no available rationalizations when you lose 35-7, you get out-rushed 230-115, and the opponent's defensive line spends the evening in your backfield because they figured out your snap count. South Carolina was better and luck had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Look at it this way: here are the Rivals recruiting rankings for Georgia for the past five years: 12, 5, 15, 6, 7. And here are the rankings for South Carolina over the same time period: 19, 18, 24, 12, 22. Each one of Georgia's classes has been better than that of South Carolina and with that advantage in material, the Dawgs lost by four touchdowns. In those five classes, South Carolina signed a pair of five-star players: Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney. Both players had a huge impact on the game. In the same time period, Georgia signed seven five-star players, five of whom were available for Mark Richt on Saturday night: Josh Harvey-Clemons, John Theus, Ray Drew, Branden Smith, and Richard Samuel. It's possible that Steve Spurrier is just lucky that the two five-star players that he landed have turned into stars while the five-star players who signed with Georgia were more uneven. However, it also seems quite possible that Georgia is doing considerably less with the raw materials that are afforded by its position as the biggest program in a fertile recruiting state.
Coming back to the Georgia Tech-South Carolina analogy, the end of the Donnan era was marked by the 2000 Dawgs coming apart at the seams. The team that took the field against the Jackets that year was a beaten unit. On the other hand, Georgia right now is in the middle of its season. The East is not lost, as the Dawgs can find themselves right back in the driver's seat if the Gamecocks stumble in Baton Rouge and Gainesville. Thus, while the 2000 Georgia Tech loss represented the end of the road, the 2012 South Carolina loss leaves Georgia with a damaged, but fixable vehicle. The question is whether Georgia has the right coach to make the necessary repairs. It's an odd question to be asking after 11.5 years and three SEC titles, but here we are.