Monday, November 27, 2006

End of Season News and Notes

Alas, the 12 Saturdays of Christmas are behind us, leaving only a few dozen meaningless bowl games, including one that likely will prove what we already know: Ohio State runs this joint and everyone else is just furniture. But vultures like me love to pick the bones of this season’s carcass to try to make some Brunswick Stew out of it. So, without further ado …

The Coaching Guillotine: Alabama, Miami, NC State, North Carolina and Arizona State have all rolled heads. Am I leaving anyone out? Due to recentness and regional bias, I’m going to give special focus to Alabama.

I agree with Paul Westerdawg that, generally speaking, what’s good for Bama football is good for Georgia as well. Like Georgia, they annually play and recruit against Auburn and Tennessee. And, unlike Auburn and Tennessee, we don’t have to deal with Alabama every year. By posting 1-3 and 0-4 marks respectively against the Vols and Plainsmen, our man in Tuscaloosa has done us few favors.

But hubris and an itchy trigger finger have been crippling to the Capstone since Bear Bryant’s retirement in 1982. A program that’s gone through six head coaches in 24 years hardly screams “job security,” so firing a coach in what is already a seller’s market for top-tier coaches was an ill-timed maneuver. And for all its tradition, support and resources, pitching Alabama in 2006 is like pitching Pitney Bowes, Western Union or Kodak: what made them dominant back in the day now threatens them with obsolescence. In Alabama’s case, that asset-turned-liability is its culture of overly involved big-money boosters, which would be intimidating to any coaching candidate not named Steve Spurrier, and I don’t think he’s going anywhere.

Now with that said, there’s plenty to recommend the Alabama gig over the other vacancies, particularly now that UNC has got their man. Like Alabama, Miami, Arizona State and NC State all have competitive in-state rivals. And they’re all in conferences with plenty of parity. I don’t know what their athletic budgets are like (although I know Miami’s is paltry and its bottom line is a seven-figure number in brackets). But I think it’s a safe assumption that Alabama will throw more money and support at a winner than will the other bidders in this year’s coaching auction.

Last words on this: Shula was clearly a desperation hire. The only thing that made him a better hire than Ray Goff is the fact that Georgia had pretty much the entire 1988 season to find Dooley’s replacement and Goff, sadly, was still the best we could come up with. The Bama gig fell into Shula’s lap in the shadow of two-a-days after … (must … resist … lame quip about laps, Mike Price and strippers) … anyway, you get the point. Having posted the opening right after Thanksgiving, Alabama ought to have enough time to get the hire right this time.

On to Georgia. Well, we closed it out with the now perfunctory Reggie Ball implosion. At halftime, a friend called to take my temperature on the game. “Well, it’s a tight game and Reggie is still healthy,” I replied. “So I’ve already lit the cigar.”

As Stafford & Co. lined up in the victory formation to salt away the final 60 seconds, CBS’ camera panned over to the Georgia Tech bench, where Ball was patting the shoulders and helmets of his team mates. There could not have been a lonelier image. Not a single player so much as glanced in his direction. In the waning seconds of his final regular season game, Reggie’s teammates accorded him less attention they would have to a fart in the breeze.

Ball is one of the more curious characters in the history of Clean Old-Fashioned Hate. I really can’t think of another rival player for whom I’ve felt so much distaste that it’s caused me to feel outright compassion for everyone else associated with his program. By being such a honking embarrassment for four years, he managed to humanize a program Dan Magill termed "the eternal enemy." If you’re a Tech fan or player, what do you make of a guy who picks fights with an opposing team’s trainers, loses track of downs and single-handedly squanders the greatest receiving talent in your program’s history – all against your hands-down biggest rival? And how does one muster optimism for a program that, in four years, failed to put anyone more consistent under center than a guy whose football IQ is the same as his jersey number?

The last shot I saw of Reggie (and it may well be one of the last times any of us ever see him on camera, unless he shows up on “COPS”), he was separate from his teammates, surrounded only by two state troopers, as “Reg-gie, Reg-gie!” chants rained down on him from the Georgia students, whose derision didn't stop there. And yet it was likely from Tech fans that he needed police protection. If it were anyone else – say, Steve Taneyhill, Casey Clausen or George Godsey – I might have felt pity. As it was, I feel only bafflement.

I know the stats say otherwise, but you could almost argue that Tech was one player away from a win Saturday. And that player would be the hothead with the ridiculously overcompensating sleeves of tattoos on his arms. Note that I said almost, because if you’ve got Paul Oliver’s back, I’ve got yours. In the admittedly rare instances when Ball was on target to Calvin Johnson, Oliver intervened to heroic effect. When a 6’5”, 235-pound All-American receiver who runs a 4.3 40 leaves the field with two catches for 13 yards and no touchdowns (in spite of a first-and-goal), you have to awe the guy who was covering him.

I was pleased to read that Mike Bobo was calling the plays Saturday and that play-calling will be a new part of his job description. As Paul notes, the view from the booth is superior to the view from the field, and it is high time Richt gravitated away from the minutiae of toss sweeps and out routes and developed the holistic perspective of a head coach. And while Bobo’s playcalling only netted 8 points, it also produced Georgia’s most memorable drive since David Greene’s two-minute drill against Tennessee in 2001. And, unlike last year’s Tech game (in which we had a veteran QB and greater talent across the offense), Georgia dominated every meaningful offensive stat – time of possession, first downs, third-down conversions, total yards and turnovers.

So, with an 8-4 regular season in the can and a presumptive trip to the Peach Bowl ahead, where does that leave us? In pretty good shape, I think; a helluva lot better than where things were headed in October. Matthew Stafford has figured out how to drive Richt’s and Bobo’s offense someplace other than into a telephone pole, his receivers have learned what to do when he points his Howitzer their way and Richt’s evolution as a head coach has progressed with some much-needed delegation of playcalling duties. As might be expected of a defense coordinated by a former DB coach, our rushing defense remains suspect, but we closed the season by bowing up in a pair of rivalry games, allowing less than 200 yards and 20 points in each. Our OL will lose depth, some of which will be missed, some of which … eh, not so much. Regardless, help is on the way. Really. EDIT: Cavalry's still comin'.

In the meantime, here some final thoughts on the season that was. As is probably the case for most Georgia fans, the final ledger was far less of a surprise than how we got there. Losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, bookended by a shutout of Spurrier in Columbia and a mauling of Auburn on the Plains: Not exactly what anyone was dialing up in August. Other than in the fourth quarter against Tennessee, we weren’t shown to be tangibly inferior to anyone and most of our wounds were of the self-inflicted variety. A sub-par year, yes, but, as 8-4 years go, this one points to more of an upside than 2000 and 2001 did.

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