Today stands as the final step before the most important offseason in Mark Richt’s tenure at Georgia.
Georgia football coach Mark Richt signs an autograph for Bulldogs fan David Vick, of Atlanta, after a Liberty Bowl media session Thursday.
The outcome of today’s Liberty Bowl date with Central Florida is largely unimportant, aside from preventing the unfortunate historical footnote that this already disappointing season goes down as Richt’s first losing campaign as a college coach.
The six losses that preceded today’s game are what already ensured that Georgia enters this offseason at a crossroads.
It’s what happens in the nine months between today and when the Bulldogs open the 2011 season against Boise State at the Georgia Dome that may determine whether Richt has a future in Athens at all.
A near future without Richt at the helm seemed almost unthinkable a couple years ago – the man radiates goodness and has been a perfect ambassador for his program, as well as a big-time winner for most of his tenure – but following an 8-5 season by needing wins against Idaho State and Georgia Tech at the end of the year just to reach bowl eligibility doesn’t do much for a coach’s long-term job security.
Richt knows as well as anybody that winning is the name of his game, and he needs to get back to doing it. Not by winning yet another pointless bowl game, which he has done each of the last four years, but by winning big games in the regular season.
Going 7-9 in Southeastern Conference play, as the Bulldogs have over the last two seasons, isn’t close to good enough.
Richt desperately needs to put himself back on solid ground with a productive 2011, after a number of judgment calls in the last few years simply haven’t gone the way he hoped – dating back to his parting of ways with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after the 2004 season.
Willie Martinez proved in time that he was incapable of filling VanGorder’s shoes as defensive coordinator, nor was John Jancek a good enough replacement for VanGorder as linebackers coach. Richt showed those two the door, along with defensive ends coach Jon Fabris, after last season, but it’s too early to tell whether Todd Grantham and his 3-4 scheme will be the answer to the Bulldogs’ defensive woes, either.
Grantham needs players whose skills and bodies fit his defense, and the Bulldogs simply don’t have a wealth of those players today. But time isn’t exactly on the coaching staff’s side. They need to sign a boatload of those players in this recruiting class and they need to show marked improvement on defense in a hurry or things aren’t going to get any better.
This offseason will bring changes in the weight room, as well, as Joe Tereshinski will replace longtime strength coach Dave Van Halanger in preparing Richt’s team for the grind of the 2011 season.
That’s another sign that Richt is willing to shake things up if he identifies a need, but it will be difficult for most outside Georgia’s football building to know exactly how much difference that important behind-the-scenes move made.
Culture change takes time and, again, the Bulldogs’ coaches don’t have a particularly lengthy grace period available to them these days.
And as is the case most every year, Georgia’s fate in 2011 will largely be determined by which underclassmen opt to leave school early and how the Bulldogs cope with the roster turnover – both from the lost underclassmen and from the seniors who moved on to the working class, NFL or otherwise.
It’s a reasonable assumption that Georgia would have fared better in the last couple of years had any of the draft-eligible players who left school early remained.
Instead, it’s as if almost every player who had a reasonable shot at being drafted took the money and ran.
Not just guys like first-round picks Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, but even those with less certain draft stock like Charles Johnson, Reshad Jones, Rennie Curran, Asher Allen, Leonard Pope and Danny Ware.
None of those players went in the draft’s first two rounds and yet all of them left Georgia with eligibility remaining in the last several years.
That’s not meant to criticize their decisions. All of those players are on an NFL roster today and have shown at least some value to their respective clubs – even Ware, who went undrafted after leaving Athens following an underwhelming junior season in 2006.
It’s just that Georgia has struggled to fill the gaps after some of those players’ early departures and it has paid dearly for those struggles.
A similar scenario is likely to develop again this year, should receiver A.J. Green cash in on his first-round status to join the NFL ranks a year early. Outside linebacker Justin Houston and cornerback Brandon Boykin could also opt for such a move, leaving further questions as to how the Bulldogs will adapt.
Who would make the big catches to keep the chains moving for Georgia’s offense without Green and departing senior Kris Durham? Who would pressure the quarterback like Houston, who has 17.5 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in the last two years? Who would be a consistent performer at cornerback like Boykin, who also may be the best kickoff returner in school history?
Those are difficult questions to answer because we can’t respond to any of them with much confidence. Georgia managed only a 6-6 record with those talented players on the roster. Automatically expecting better results without them would be risky to say the least.
That’s the level of uncertainty that surrounds Georgia’s football program today. Question marks abound, and it’s impossible to know whether the Bulldogs’ current crop of players and coaches have the answers to return the program to the winning ways of Richt’s early days at Georgia.
A win today would be a nice way to start this important offseason, but today’s outcome won’t prove anything.
Richt has nine months of button-pushing ahead before the Bulldogs play again and he’d better hope he hits the keys with a remarkable success rate between now and then.
If not, if the Bulldogs bog down in another marginal offseason and stumble out of the gates again in September en route to a third straight lackluster season, it’s hard to believe Georgia would keep Richt around.
That would be a true shame, but the program can’t keep grasping at straws and drawing the shortest one.
• David Ching is sports editor for the Banner-Herald. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 706-208-2239