This is the five-year record of a Georgia coach — 40-19 overall (a winning percentage of .678) and an SEC record of 25-15 (.625).
This is also the five-year record of a Georgia coach — 45-21 overall (.682) and an SEC record record of 28-12 (.700).
The first represents the entirety of Jim Donnan’s tenure in Athens. The second represents the past five seasons of Mark Richt. As we know, Donnan was fired after losing to Georgia Tech in 2000. (He stuck around to coach — and win — the Oahu Bowl.) Richt remains firmly in place.
Disclaimer: Richt has been a better Georgia coach than Donnan. That’s beyond dispute. Richt has won two SEC titles to Donnan’s none, has taken five teams to the SEC championship game to Donnan’s zero, has led Georgia to three BCS bowls to Donnan’s zero. (He’s also 12-2 against Tech, as opposed to Donnan’s 2-3.)
This isn’t to suggest that Richt should be fired after these five seasons because Donnan was fired after his five. Richt has built up a reservoir of good will, whereas Donnan upraided Loran Smith for asking about cramps. Were I Jere Morehead and Greg McGarity, I would not — repeat, would not — consider firing Richt. That said …
Donnan’s five years came at a time when both Florida/Spurrier and Tennessee/Fulmer were winning not just the SEC East or even the SEC writ large but national championships. (They also came at a time when George O’Leary was coaching Tech.) Richt’s Bulldogs just finished second in a division that saw its third-best team (South Carolina or Florida or Tennessee, take your pick) win six games. By way of contrast, the worst team in the West won six games.
Last year Georgia missed a prime chance, but that loaded team was compromised by injury. This year a lesser Georgia missed an even better chance. Losing Todd Gurley for four games to suspension and then to a knee injury didn’t help, but Georgia was still the more talented team in all three of its strange/stranger/strangest losses.
Had the Bulldogs beaten Florida, they’d have won the SEC East. Had they won the SEC East and then beaten Tech, they’d be no worse than No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings. There was no excuse for not beating Florida, the same Florida that fired its coach 15 days later, just as there was no excuse for not winning a game in which they scored the go-ahead touchdown with 18 seconds remaining and the opponent out of timeouts.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Georgia’s win probability after Malcolm Mitchell’s touchdown catch at 0:18 was 99.8 percent — “the highest win probability this season by a team that wound up losing the game,” ESPN S&I helpfully notes. In sum, you have to try really hard to mess that up. Georgia tried a squib kick that Richt would concede was about the worst call of his career. (Running the ball on the goal line against Auburn in 2001 has been dropped to No. 2.)
Lovie’s Rule: You cannot squib the ball when one reasonable play can yield a reasonable field-goal try. Tech took the ball at its 43 with 13 seconds left. Kicking deep would have forced the Jackets to use more seconds returning it or to start from the 25 after a touchback, in which case Justin Thomas’ 21-yard scramble wouldn’t have gotten them to midfield.
Why is this Lovie’s Rule? In 2008, the Bears scored with 11 seconds remaining to take a one-point lead over the Falcons. Lovie Smith, then coaching the Bears, ordered a squib. Harry Douglas returned it 10 yards to the Falcons’ 44. Six seconds remained. Matt Ryan found Michael Jenkins on the sideline for 26 yards. One second. Jason Elam won it with a 48-yarder.
The Prayer At Jordan-Hare? For Georgia, that was bad luck. This was bad coaching. We can argue forever over whether a play-action pass on first-and-goal from the South Carolina 4 was a good call sabotaged by bad execution, but there’s no debate over kicking short. It was wrong. It gave Tech a chance it shouldn’t have had. (Which isn’t to say Tech didn’t deserve to win. It outplayed Georgia, who essentially did Saturday what the Falcons did against the Browns — lose a game they shouldn’t have won but also shouldn’t have lost.)
In the grand scheme, the Florida loss was more damaging. (It’s the worst loss under Richt.) But losing to Tech — losing after taking the lead at 0:18, losing after blocking a PAT in OT — was utterly apt: Georgia had a great shot to do great things even without Gurley, and it failed.
The kneejerk reaction is to say that next season will be harder, what with Hutson Mason and surely Gurley and probably Leonard Floyd gone, but who in the SEC East looks better than Georgia? South Carolina and Florida went a collective 18-17. Tennessee is getting better but isn’t there yet. Missouri can’t keep this up forever, can it? This season was a muffed chance, but the flip side of the Bulldogs never maximizing their potential is that, the way they recruit, the potential remains.
Which puts Georgia in a strange position. It’s never quite as good as it wants to be, but it’s never bad enough that you can say for certain that another coach would come here and be guaranteed of doing better. (Note: Gus Malzahn just went 8-4 in Year 2 at Auburn.) We can pick at Richt’s failures — heck, we can even compare his record to that of the man he replaced — but there’s always the possibility that next year might be Georgia’s year. And Richt’s.