Same Place, But Everything’s Different Now

Eight years ago Georgia played Auburn in Auburn, and the result was one of the brightest moments of Mark Richt’s career and of Georgia football this decade.

Let me give you some context:  Georgia had not won an SEC championship in over 20 years going into the 2002 season.  Georgia cruised through its schedule and was 8-0 before absorbing the inevitable loss to Florida in Jacksonville.

This left Georgia desperately in need of a win over Auburn to clinch a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship.  In the first half, it looked as if it was not going to happen.  Auburn jumped out to a 14-3 lead (which would have been a lot bigger if not for some outstanding defensive play by safety Sean Jones).

In the second half, Georgia came out and scored on the opening series.  Auburn answered.  Auburn then proceeded to punt Georgia back all the way into the shadow of its own goal.  A safety would have given Auburn a 23-10 lead and the ball, and a chance to blow the game wide open.  And on third-and-19 from inside the 5 yard line, the Auburn safeties were smelling it.  Musa Smith ran right by them on a draw play and gained 35 yards.  Georgia went on to score and pull within 21-17.

But then the Georgia offense bogged down.  Though they were unable to move the ball through the rest of the third quarter and most of the fourth quarter, Sean Jones kept making excellent punt returns to set them up with outstanding field position.

Then things finally started to happen.  Georgia worked its way down to the Auburn 14 with about two minutes left in the game.  Three straight incompletions and a delay-of-game penalty left them facing fourth-and-15 from the 19.

Watch what happened next:

Georgia played defense for a minute and 30 seconds after that, and then was on its way to Atlanta.

Yesterday evening, Georgia returned to the site of that marvelous finish that blew the lid off a long-frustrated program.

Alas, how things have changed since then.

After experiencing success after success in the early part of the decade, Georgia fell on hard times.  The decline started in 2006 when the loss of several key players left Georgia with a young team that was not ready for prime time.  They muddled through that season and were sweating out bowl eligibility–a most unusual position for a Mark Richt-coached team to be in.  They needed a win over Auburn–right here on this very field, in fact–to rescue a season that was spinning wildly awry.  They got it, and went on to salvage a Peach Bowl bid.

The decline was interrupted in the latter part of the 2007 season, when the infamous “Gator Stomp” catalyzed a rare win over Florida which sparked a remarkable run which saw Georgia jump right into the thick of the national championship discussion and finish the season at No. 2.

The decline continued apace in 2008, with Georgia starting the season at No. 1 but finishing at No. 16 with three losses which included brutal punishments at the hands of Alabama and Florida.  From there, the bottom dropped out.  Georgia muddled through 2009 with an 8-5 record, the worst ever under Mark Richt, and was lucky to salvage a trip to Shreveport.

But 2010 was even worse.  Worse–with 10 of 11 offensive starters returning and a hotshot young quarterback itching to prove himself.  Worse–with a $750,000 defensive coordinator who was hired for the express purpose of making things better on that side of the ball!

This left Georgia desperately needing a win here at Auburn, what would have been a most momentous win for the program–just to salvage bowl eligibility!

Didn’t happen.

Auburn came out sloppy and let Georgia build a 21-7 lead.  But then they started to click, and it was all over.  Cameron Newton put on a show, and by the time it was all over Auburn had boatraced Georgia 49-31.  Auburn punched its ticket to Atlanta in style, and Georgia was left to gape and gawk in amazement and wonder what the hell just happened.

Mad props go out to Auburn for this.  With all the distractions swirling around the program and around Cameron Newton this week, Gene Chizik did an amazing job of coaching his players up and getting them ready for this game.

Oh, how I wish I could say the same for Mark Richt!!!!!

Alas, I cannot.

Not that I blame Mark Richt for this loss.  He did all that he could do.  He had his charges ready to play.  They played their hearts out, and he coached his heart out.  They brought everything but the kitchen sink, and then went back and got the kitchen sink and brought that too.

Alas, it wasn’t enough.

In the end, they were outmanned, outclassed–and yes, outcoached–by Auburn and Gene Chizik.  By a second-year SEC coach who went 5-19 against Big 12 North competition (how hard can THAT be?) at his previous school.

And that, alas, is where Georgia is these days.  Georgia, once the pride and class of the SEC, now finds itself thoroughly irrelevant–the only reason people tuned in to CBS to watch this game was to see Cameron Newton and Auburn put on a highlight reel.  Mark Richt, formerly the coach who ALWAYS had the answers when the game was on the line–P-44 Haynes, 70X Takeoff, and a whole host of other highlights that filled the early part of this decade–is now in WAY over his head when attempting to compete with the newer, younger coaches of this league.

Eight years ago, on a cold November night, Georgia and Mark Richt had all the answers.  Alas, EVERYTHING is different now.