<
>

Georgia left to ponder what could've been

12/1/2014

There was a time not so long ago where Mark Richt was arguably having one of his better coaching seasons as Georgia’s head Bulldog in charge. Today, you won’t find anyone who would make that argument.

Not after Richt’s decision to squib kick with 18 seconds left in regulation against Georgia Tech – a call that he later ranked among his dumbest decisions as Georgia’s coach – gave the Yellow Jackets time to tie the game with a last-second field goal and then win in overtime.

Or after a consistently terrible Florida offense suddenly looked like the mid-90s Nebraska Cornhuskers by running all over Georgia’s defense in an enormous upset, following two road wins where the Bulldogs seemingly could do no wrong.

Such has been the peaks-and-valleys nature of this season for the Bulldogs -- and that’s saying something at UGA, which frequently ranks among the nation’s most schizophrenic programs.

Flash back to Nov. 1, when the Bulldogs rolled into Jacksonville at 6-1. Sure, Georgia had suffered a disappointing loss to South Carolina early in the season, but Richt seemed to have righted the ship even while superstar running back Todd Gurley was suspended.

Richt sat down the Heisman Trophy front-runner only days before the Bulldogs’ key road trip to Missouri, when allegations began to emerge that Gurley accepted payment for signing memorabilia. The junior star eventually received a four-game suspension for breaking NCAA rules, but the daunting two-game road swing to Mizzou and Arkansas at the start of his suspension could not have gone better for Georgia.

The Bulldogs drilled Mizzou 34-0 and then jumped out to a 38-6 halftime lead over Arkansas before winning 45-32, with freshman running back Nick Chubb establishing himself as Georgia’s next backfield superstar.

Things were looking good. Although some Georgia fans were angry that the school didn’t obstruct the NCAA’s investigation as other programs have – thereby keeping their star player eligible to compete despite possible rules violations – Richt looked like a coach who was doing his job the right way and his short-handed team was still succeeding.

But that narrative ended against Florida, when the Gators rushed for 424 yards in a 38-20 victory. Only one Georgia opponent (Auburn with 430 in 1978) had ever rushed for more yards in a game against the Bulldogs.

It was arguably the worst loss in Richt’s 14 seasons at Georgia, and yet somehow the Bulldogs didn’t go into a tailspin. They blew out Kentucky and, more impressively, then-No. 9 Auburn in Gurley’s return to action.

Although Gurley suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the Auburn win, things still seemed to be looking up again for the Bulldogs. Having completed their SEC schedule at 6-2, they stood a good chance of representing the SEC East if Mizzou were to lose another conference game. They had a cupcake opponent left in Charleston Southern, followed by the home finale against Georgia Tech, which had beaten Richt only once in 13 tries.

It looked like Georgia was in good shape to reach Atlanta on a high note and maybe even gain some retribution for its heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game by knocking the Crimson Tide out of the playoff picture.

Maybe it was Georgia’s renewed optimism that made last weekend even more painful. Mizzou spoiled the Bulldogs’ SEC plans by rallying to beat Arkansas on Friday. Playing for an SEC title was out the window, and the Bulldogs played like a deflated bunch the following afternoon against Georgia Tech.

However, despite a sloppy performance, the Bulldogs were still in position to win after Malcolm Mitchell’s go-ahead touchdown catch with 18 seconds to play. That’s when Georgia’s decision to squib kick helped the Yellow Jackets open their final possession at their own 43-yard line. When quarterback Justin Thomas scrambled for 21 yards on the next play, the Yellow Jackets had a chance to attempt a game-tying field goal at the buzzer, and Harrison Butker was good from 53 yards.

The bungled final minute came back to haunt Richt and Georgia once Tech won in overtime, creating an understandable meltdown within the Bulldogs' fan base. In a matter of about 20 hours, the Bulldogs had slipped from SEC championship – and possible College Football Playoff – contender to likely participant in yet another mid-level bowl game. The weekend could hardly have turned out any worse.

Welcome to Georgia fandom over the last couple of seasons. Richt’s 2013 team entered the season with national title hopes only to have the year derailed by injuries to key players. They came into 2014 with more modest expectations, but the Bulldogs were still the best team in the East when it felt like proving it deserved that label.

Instead, the losses to two of its biggest rivals encapsulated what will go down as a disappointing season for the Bulldogs. They’ll enter bowl season with a 9-3 record, and getting to 10 wins would be a fine accomplishment, but this is a team that was capable of much more.

Georgia certainly good enough to win the East and had a decent shot at cracking the playoff field at one point.

Georgia didn’t accomplish any of those goals, though, and the Bulldogs have only themselves to blame for those failures.