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Georgia-Alabama: Coming To Grips With Being Good, But Not Great

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Mark Richt is an honorable man and a good coach. He also is not Nick Saban. We need to keep that little fact in mind when we prepare for Georgia's biggest game in three decades.

A gentle reminder.
A gentle reminder.
Kevin C. Cox

Saturday was not a good day for my primary football rooting interest. While Georgia fans were enjoying the Dawgs' demolition of Georgia Tech, Mark Richt's eleventh win over the Jackets in twelve tries, I was suffering through my alma mater's frustrating five-point loss to Ohio State. I suppose that I should be grateful that Michigan is competitive with its arch rival after four straight double-digit losses in Lloyd Carr's last season and then the three years of the Rich Rodriguez disaster. However, it is not a lot easier to watch your team come tantalizingly close to beating an 11-0 team on its home field than it is to watch your team get run off the field from the start.

What was especially frustrating was that Michigan had the tools to move the ball on Ohio State, and yet the Wolverines failed to cross midfield in the second half against a defense that was mid-table in the Big Ten (the Big Ten!). All of the warnings that I got from my Auburn friends when Al Borges became the offensive coordinator at Michigan, the warnings that I dismissed with "he won't have Tommy Tuberville meddling in his affairs," came rushing back to me. Brian Cook, take it away:

If you've poked around the flaming wreckage of the Michigan internet in the aftermath of Saturday, you have undoubtedly heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth because of that. But the thing is so stark it has to be marveled at again: when Denard Robinson entered the game against Ohio State, every play but one was Denard Robinson doing something. Once it was fail to chip Ryan Shazier and try to get out for a screen; all other times it was run the ball, sometimes with a pitch included. The fakeout was a six-yard completion to Mike Kwiatkowski in the first quarter, and there ended any attempt at deception...

What can you say? It's indefensible. It's a failure without any possible explanation. It caused legions of neutral observers to laugh or fume or sit slack-jawed as they watched it unfold. Sean McDonough was dumbfounded. Orson, in the stands, marveled. Twitter burst at the seams with furious mockery from people who don't care about Michigan but do hate to see Denard Robinson end his final Ohio State game on the bench, having averaged 11 yards a carry on ten attempts.

Or the aforementioned Orson:

7. I was ready to bolt The Game early if I had to, but fortunately Midwestern football is polite and runs on a schedule. After Denard Robinson scored on Al Borges' mind-blowing two-minute drill (sweep left! then sweep right!) the game calcified, presumably frozen by the elements and both defenses clamping down on whatever was going on in the first half. Braxton Miller was largely corralled, and Carlos Hyde was left to pound out the Michigan defense and put the Wolverines in the horrendous position of doing whatever it is that Al Borges wants the Michigan offense to do.

8. No one knows precisely what this is, save from calling really obvious rollout passes that the Georgia defense was picking off back in 2006. You, Devin Gardner, are no Brandon Cox. (Mostly because Gardner only threw one pick, and Cox was good for at least three against Georgia at any given time He also did nothing but beat Florida. I hate and respect you, Brandon Cox, and always will.)

I came away from the game with a basic fear confirmed: Michigan is going to lose more than its share to Ohio State as long as Urban Meyer is the coach in Columbus. There is not going to be an immediate correction for the Tressel era, a whiplash where Michigan is suddenly on a long winning streak to compensate for the seven straight that the Wolverines lost from 2004 to 2010. The college football gods do not believe in redistribution.

Brady Hoke has exceeded my expectations in a major way. His first team went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl. Where Lloyd Carr drove Michigan fans crazy with conservative tactical decisions in close games, Hoke is endearingly aggressive. More importantly, Hoke might come across like a Chris Farley character, but that doesn't stop him from being (or maybe causes him to be) an excellent recruiter. Michigan brought in a top ten class in Hoke's first year and is poised to do even better this February. This is no easy feat at a program whose recruiting base is gradually bleeding talent.

However, the simple truth is that Hoke is not as good a head coach as Urban Meyer. This is hardly an insult, as I can count the number of coaches who are on Meyer's level on one hand. Still, I am left to confront the fact that Michigan's arch rival has a better recruiting base and a better coach. I can gnash my teeth all I want at the fact that Ohio State was punished for major NCAA violations with a coaching upgrade, but maybe that's Ohio's reward for having a football culture that produces coaches like Meyer who view coaching in Columbus as a career apex. (That culture also produced Hoke and Bo Schembechler, so a little gratitude on my part is in order.)

We live in a sports culture that derides teams, players, and coaches that are good, but not elite. We get inundated with cliches about second place being the first loser. Coaches are forced to mouth platitudes about winning a championship being the only goal. Atlantans experienced this phenomenon first-hand during the Braves' run of putting together great regular seasons and then losing short, lottery ticket series in October, an era that apparently means that we were tortured for years. One has to step outside of a cultural norm to say "my team is well-run, but not as well-run as our rival, and I accept being second out of twelve instead of first."

And after 985 words, that brings me to the Georgia-Alabama game. With that lead-in, you can probably see where I'm going with this piece. Mark Richt always struck me as the Lloyd Carr of the SEC: an honorable man who represents the personal virtues held in the highest regard by his school's fan base, a good recruiter who puts together talented teams, but a coach who has certain limitations in terms of offensive approach and tactical decision-making that leaves him a notch below elite. Carr won when he was coaching against John Cooper; he lost when he was coaching against Jim Tressel. Richt won when he was coaching against Ron Zook* and now Will Muschamp (although that is by no means set in stone); he lost when he was coaching against Steve Spurrier* and Urban Meyer.

* - Richt inexplicably went 1-2 against Zook, but Zook's various other failings allowed Georgia to win the East in both of the years in which Richt lost to Zook.

** - I'm thinking of the Florida Spurrier here. South Carolina Spurrier also has a good record against Richt, but it's harder for his team to turn wins over Georgia into divisional titles because of South Carolina's inferior recruiting position.

On Saturday, Richt is going to be going up against an elite coach and program. Georgia is used to playing opponents that do not have as much talent as the Dawgs; the comedic stylings of Bacarri Rambo aside, that will not be true on Saturday. Alabama's last five recruiting classes, according to Rivals were #1, #1, #5, #1, and #1. Although oversigning does give the Tide a slight advantage in those rankings, the average star rating of Bama's recruits over those five years was higher than that of Georgia's in all but one. The last time we saw Nick Saban with an extended period of time to prepare for an SEC opponent in a championship game, his defense stopped LSU from crossing midfield until the fourth quarter. (I am operating on the assumption that Saban was able to coach against Western Carolina and Auburn with one eye on Atlanta. He would not have let on about this to the players because of THE PROCESS, but in places he doesn't talk about at parties, he's been thinking about the Dawgs for a while.) It may not be fair that Alabama fans got the Bear and now they get his modern-day equivalent. This is, after all, the program that only hired Saban after Rich Rodriguez changed his mind about taking the Bama job. But here we are; Nick Saban is coming to town.

Georgia has, by in large, a reasonable fan base. Dawg fans are not noted for outlandish expectations for their coaches, which is to their credit. Under normal circumstances, they would have no problem agreeing with the statement that Mark Richt is a good coach, possibly even a very good coach, but that he is not Nick Saban and as long as Saban is in Tuscaloosa (and the Tide are not on probation), Georgia will tend to have teams that are not as good as those of Alabama. That doesn't mean that the Tide will always beat the Dawgs, but the odds are generally against it. Sure enough, Bama comes to town as a 7.5-point favorite against Georgia, which translates to about a 29% chance of the Dawgs winning. You don't need to be Nate Silver to understand that those are not good odds.

This little exercise in remembering where we are seems useful now that the SEC Championship Game is being sold as Georgia's biggest game in thirty years. With the stakes so high and a tantalizingly beatable Notre Dame team over the horizon, it is quite possible for Georgia fans to get caught up in the moment and forget that this is not a contest between equals. Georgia has a reasonable chance of winning on Saturday, but they don't have a good chance because of the quality of the opponent. We ought to keep that in mind because it could very well help us deal with the aftermath. This is an "Odysseus being lashed to the mast" moment and that exercise proved useful in October.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.