UGA Lost in the Desert (Again)

ATHENS - The divot in Sanford Stadium’s hedges left by Paul Johnson’s scholar-athletes wasn’t the only hole in Georgia’s 2016 season.

It was another painful home loss for the Bulldogs. It was as appropriate an ending for a season that’s been as frustrating as 2015 - if not for very different reasons. Georgia lost three home games this season - the most home losses in 20 years - by one, one and three points. All traumatic in their own painful way. 

That pain - Vanderbilt’s inexplicable win, Tech’s comeback and Tennessee’s miracle - made the 2016 season one to forget after such hope in September. The gloom hovering over Bulldog nation isn’t new, but it is slightly different. 

This time last fall there was no hope because hope expired. Mark Richt had done all he could do, but he could not lead the Bulldogs to the promise land. This fall hope has faded because of difficult loses in games that seemed all but won. That, and the fact that folks are only now starting to understand just how difficult this turnaround job is going to be. 

Teaching a killer instinct, which has been missing the last two falls, to the players of this program will by Kirby Smart’s biggest challenge this winter. It will be a starkly colder winter considering the optimism of Smart’s hire and the walk-on-water characterization fans (and some media) placed on true freshman Jacob Eason. 

Now both have flaws that the world has seen, and sometimes those things are hard to erase from your memory.  

93,000 folks jammed in to watch a new beginning this spring, only to see it wind up with a 7-5 regular season and questions abound about how much longer Georgia patrons were going to have to suffer. If Georgia’s long-suffering fan base seems tired, that’s probably because they are. 

Its been 33 years since this program has played for a national title. In that time Georgia’s three main rivals - Auburn, Florida and Georgia Tech - have combined to play for it in some fashion eight times (1990, 1995, 1996, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013). 

Meanwhile, Georgia fans are left to talk about how close and painful their misses have been in 2002, 2007 and 2012. 

Most thought Kirby would be able to come in and change the trajectory of the program for the long term. A year ago today, Mark Richt, who was arguably the second-best coach in school history, was fired for not winning enough. 

A year later the only thing that has improved is recruiting - something that shouldn’t be dismissed by so many. It amazes me that most of the media that covers this program thinks that Georgia has recruited well enough to be a top program. It hasn’t. Just take a gander at the 2013 class if you need a refresher course. Like investing, it takes time for recruiting to show its gains. But they will come if Kirby and company close out the 2017 class the way they should. 

Nonetheless, after a 7-5 season its always hard to see how Georgia will get to where it needs to go any time soon. Its easy to feel negative after that sort of season, and a loss to Georgia Tech to cap it off.

Even after a November that saw Georgia take several steps forward - the game-winning kick at Kentucky; the upset of No. 8 Auburn - the loss to the Jackets was a major step backward no matter how you look at it. 

With that said, this season was never really set up for success. The last time a freshman QB had success in the SEC was never. What Jalen Hurts is doing at Alabama is magical, but then again, we’ve seen a lot of Alabama QBs do magical lately - true freshman or not. First-year head coaches? They struggle in this league… that’s just the way it is. 

Many folks behind the scenes have expressed that Kirby “is learning, too”. That year of learning is now over, and folks are going to want to see real-deal results in 2017. The schedule sets up pretty good, too, but its always a challenge in this league. 

App State comes to Athens before a huge game at Notre Dame. Its looking more and more like Brian Kelly won’t be in South Bend when Georgia arrives. Samford comes to Athens followed by Mississippi State. Unless those teams are better (App State is 9-3 with losses to Troy, Miami and Tennessee - so they very well could be a challenge in the opener), UGA should travel to Tennessee 4-0. A trip to Vanderbilt (who beat the Dawgs and Vols and played the Gators tight) is a week later with Missouri in Athens on Oct. 14. 

Its certainly conceivable - to be sure - that Georgia could have one loss or fewer heading into the game with the Gators. That game will set off a pivotal stretch. South Carolina comes to Athens on Nov 4. Then a difficult trip to Auburn. Those three games will determine the season. It is a brutal late-season stretch. Kentucky comes to Athens the week before the game at Tech. 

The schedule is never easy for Georgia. 

But that’s the 4,000-foot view of things. The 40,000-foot view of things right now is that Georgia, the athletic department, really isn’t good at anything anyone cares about right now. That’s just the truth. 

It hasn’t won the SEC East since 2012. Its been more than a decade since the Silver Britches last won the SEC. So Mark Richt was fired. The last time UGA won an NCAA Tournament game Jim Harrick was its basketball coach, and we aren’t allowed to talk about Jim Harrick any more. That was 15 seasons ago - this is Mark Fox’s eighth year as head coach in Athens. 

Not that anyone is complaining. At least it does’t seem like it. Everyone seems to be ok with being ok - and that’s the problem. When is someone going to step up and deliver around here? Kirby is rightfully getting criticized for going 7-5 in his opening season, but who else is getting criticism? Who is setting the bar for excellence at UGA? Does that bar exist? 

That’s the one thing about Kirby - it is impossible to know what the future holds with him, but at a minimum he’s recruiting at a level we’ve not seen in these parts perhaps ever. He’s fighting for excellence. If he will achieve that or not - we can’t know that right now. Its not hard to imagine that Georgia will be the East’s representative in Atlanta next winter. Its not hard to imagine them winning the conference in 2018. 

Imagining is only one part of the puzzle; its the part that Georgia fails at the most, but its only one part of the puzzle nonetheless. Kirby and company still have to go out and execute, and that’s the part we don’t know the answer to yet. 

In addition, I don’t get the feeling that Kirby is ok with being ok. After losses everyone is quick to talk about how bad the coaches are - that’s what we do as a society; I don’t always agree with it, but I get it. Fans get frustrated. But one thing I know, win or lose, is that Kirby isn’t ok with being ok. You don’t just change that from the bloodstream in a matter of a season, however. That, sadly, takes time. 

The question for Kirby won’t necessarily be about recruiting - although that’s clearly the most important thing he can do before the Bulldogs play again in a bowl - its about injecting a killer instinct this program has, for far too long, missed. 

Again, Georgia lost five games this season. All three home losses (by a combined five points) happen after Georgia had fourth-quarter leads. Against Tennessee, Georgia was in control and had a ten-point lead against the Vols only to lose in one of the wildest endings in Sanford Stadium history. Georgia was up six against Vandy in the fourth, but managed to lose a game it totally dominated and never should have lost. Then on Saturday, Georgia was about to cruise to a victory up 13 in the fourth, but never could get the first down it needed to end the game. The rest was history. Again, Georgia lost a game it never should have lost. 

Will that trend continue? Is this a sign of a young team that’s got to first experience pain in order to have full buy in? Is this about a first-year head coach trying to figure out how to teach a group he, for the most part, didn’t recruit? 

That’s the biggest thing Kirby has to address coming into the offseason - having the killer instinct to finish games. Blowing the other team off the ball at the end the game when the moment of truth comes. That’s what’s missing right now at UGA. Folks might not like it, but that will come with time and a cycling of new body types on the offensive line. 

And that comes from recruiting. And, too, that takes time. There is no way around that. The offensive line has progressed from the second game of the season until the end of the year - no doubt - but it still wasn’t good enough to close this game out. Jacob Eason has progressed from the start of the season until today. Roquan Smith. Riley Ridley. Special teams units. Kirby is right - they are developing players. But Kirby has to continue to recruit… and not just at levels we’ve seen in the past. That won’t work. We know that. We’ve seen that up close and for certain the last two years. 

What Kirby needs to do is to continue to recruit at a high level. Once that happens everything will fall into place. That’s all there is to it. The learning year is over. There’s one more game remaining in it, but the result of that game (unlike the result of the Tech game) is irrelevant. From here until Signing Day is all about recruiting. 2017 won’t be a walk in the park, either, but so much more will be known than we knew coming into this season. We knew a future existed at Georgia, but we didn’t know what it looked like. 

Now we do. Some of it is good; some bad. But its a future that can be molded and shaped into a winner. Everyone knew that the 2016 season was about 2017 and 2018. Kirby and company decided to risk a ruined season for a future they believe will be big. We can’t know if that will be the case, but we can know that the next time the scholar-athletes arrive in Athens the team they will be facing should be very, very different.

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