That Vandy has defeated UGA more in the last decade (3 times) than Auburn has (2 times) is one of those weird things in life - everything doesn’t have to make sense. But its happened nonetheless on Saturday.
Georgia’s loss to Vanderbilt came on a day where Florida took control of its own destiny in the SEC East. The Gators are the Dawgs’ next opponent - and now serve as the best chance this season for the Dawgs to have a big win. Alabama’s yearly embarrassment of Tennessee opened the door for the Gators (and seemingly everyone else in the East not busy shooting off its own foot). But the Bulldogs’ unlikely path was slammed shut by another type of Dore.
A week-by-week review of how we got here…
First, Mark Richt was fired for not winning enough big games, and being in too many games like this one (last season’s Georgia Southern debacle comes to mind).
Second, Kirby Smart, apparently the only candidate Greg McGarity interviewed, was hired to replace Richt.
Heading into the season, Greyson Lambert was named starter for the UNC game. That lasted about a half as Jacob Eason moved the ball effectively enough for UGA to beat a ranked team (North Carolina) for the first time since the 2014 Belk Bowl after racking up 289 yards on the ground.
Eason started, and was sluggish, against Nichols, but the Bulldogs won after passing for 200 yards.
Eason started and saved the Bulldogs on the road against Missouri with a fourth-down TD pass to Isaiah McKenzie. Eason thew the ball 55 times for 308 yards.
The noon kick against Ole Miss was a total disaster in every way - UGA just wasn’t ready.
The Tennessee game was likely the best overall game this team has played this season. Balance was there on offense - 181 rushing yards and 211 passing yards - and the defense played well, too. The team just didn’t make the final play to win.
Then the confusion of the week of the South Carolina game. When would the game be played? Would it be played? When it was played UGA won by running the ball - 50 times for 326 yards. Passing? A blur - 17 attempts for 29 yards.
Then Saturday: Georgia managed to lose a game against an inferior opponent. That happened even though the Bulldogs: outgained Vandy by 250; held the ball ten minutes longer than Vandy; committed only 53 yards in penalties and only allowed two drives longer than 25 yards the entire game.
It speaks to Vanderbilt’s mental toughness that they didn’t roll over an quit. It shows just how far Georgia has to go in the mental toughness - and perhaps physical toughness - department. That Vanderbilt somehow won a game in which they were pretty well impotent on offense is amazing.
I know that Kirby has the blueprint to get Georgia where it needs to go. I also know, having been through a house remodel (I should say “I also know because I am still going through a house remodel”) that blueprints are fine and everything, but you still have to build the house.
We are seeing that happen right now, and its not been pretty very often for the Dawgs in 2016. Even though folks talked at length about how difficult this was going to be for a new head coach and a true freshman starting at quarterback - nothing makes you forget that more than losing to Vanderbilt.
Not excusing things here, but we all knew this team was going to lose games - right? Perhaps not against a team as bad as Vanderbilt, but we all knew losses were going to happen. Living in the here and now - right now - is not the right frame of mind to be in.
Think about the teams listed in the top ten coming into this weekend.
Nick Saban’s first season at Alabama the Tide went 7-6.
Urban Meyer set the mark at Ohio State going undefeated in 2012.
Dabo Swinney went 9-5 in 2009 at Clemson after going 4-3 as interim head coach in 2008.
Jim Harbaugh was 10-3 last season at Michigan.
Chris Petersen was 8-6 at Washington in 2014.
Kevin Sumlin was 11-2 at Texas A&M in 2012
Bobby Petrino went 9-4 in 2014 at Louisville.
Butch Jones was 5-7 in Knoxville in his first season.
Mike Riley’s first season at Nebraska was 6-7.
So the average of those coaches in their first years was something around the 8-4 mark. Without the Big Ten coaches, who are clear outliers in this situation, the average is 7-5.
Bad losses? That can happen, too, in the first year amongst that group as well. Nebraska lost to Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue last year; Petrino and company lost to Greyson Lambert and Virginia in 2014; Peterson and UW narrowly beat FCS Eastern Washington; Dabo Swinney and Clemson lost to 2-10 Maryland in 2009; and don’t look now, but Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt in Butch Jones’ first season. I think everyone is well aware of Alabama’s strange loss to Louisiana–Monroe in 2007.
No one wants to hear this right now (particularly after a loss to Vanderbilt) but winning at the level UGA folks want - stuff like the runs from 2011-2014, 2002-2008 or 1980-1982 - takes time because it takes new players. It also takes an understanding from the players already on campus how critical even the smallest detail is. I firmly believe Kirby is a detail-oriented person, but that’s not fully saturated into the program yet.
Where Kirby has struggled so far is explaining to his team - his program - just how valuable every single play is in a football game. Maybe that’s part of a year-long, or multi-year transition into being a better team and program. That attention to detail is missing big time on special teams, and it has cost Georgia games like the one against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
For instance: Even a 50-yard kickoff return at the start of the game rather than a 95-yard return probably wins the Vandy game for UGA.
For instance: A regular kickoff scenario against Tennessee at the conclusion of that game almost certainly means a UGA win.
For instance: An incomplete pass on 4th and ball game against Missouri means a loss in that game.
For instance: Nick Chubb’s 55-yard TD run in the 4th quarter against North Carolina blows that game open.
Games are won or lost on single plays - perhaps not more than five plays in a game truly matter. The Vanderbilt loss proves that - a team so vastly outplayed on paper won a game by the smallest of margins.
This team hasn’t earned the trust of its fans yet. There is simply no telling if the offense is going to throw for 300 and run for 30 - or vice versa. You just can’t tell. They are as unpredictable as they are young in the wrong positions. Perhaps they are unpredictable because they are young in the wrong positions… the 2010 team was very much that way, too. That team lost to Mississippi State, UCF and Colorado.
But, at the end of the day, there’s no excuse, explanation or reason that Georgia should ever lose to Vanderbilt.
Just shouldn’t happen - no two ways about it.