Reading the Richter Scale: Week Nine

richter

After entering yet another season with high hopes, the Georgia Bulldogs have limped to a 5-3 start, with all three losses coming against SEC opponents. Like last year, they lost their star running back to serious injury and Florida embarrassed them in Jacksonville. Matching last year’s 10-3 record will require the Dawgs to win out– they’ve already equaled 2014’s loss total. With remaining games against Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech, as well as a presumptive bowl opponent, that’s not an impossible task, but without Nick Chubb or any coherence at quarterback, it is far from guaranteed, especially without a bailout defense. In terms of end-of-season incentives, that bowl-game appearance is all the team has to play for, though, the Florida loss having eliminated UGA from contention for the SEC championship. Before the season started, Georgia’s representation of the SEC East in that game was a foregone conclusion.

Now, a groundswell seems to be building against Richt, with demands for a change coming from across the spectrum: Finebaum callers, the beat writers, and “major” boosters. It’s the last group that really moves the meter in situations like these. Richt is under contract through 2018 thanks to an extension he signed in January. If the school wants him gone before then, a buyout, likely funded with booster money, would be necessary.  

Georgia fans, like the fans of most teams, periodically have called for the firing of their head coach. The beat on Richt is that he is good, maybe even very good, but not great. He’s 141-51 as UGA’s head coach, and his teams have appeared in bowl games every season of his tenure. What has not happened under Richt’s watch are the two things that did during Vince Dooley’s: a national championship, most importantly, and a Heisman Trophy win.  The 2014 season seemed to set up nicely for checking both of those boxes, thanks in large part to the presence of Todd Gurley in the backfield. (And don’t mention the 2012 SEC championship game in the presence of any UGA fan.) With Gurley lost, none of that materialized, and this season, with Chubb the lost heir-apparent to Gurley’s position, has been eerily similar.

It usually is easy to rebuff the “fire Richt” argument by asking a practical question: What available alternative is better? There typically has been no obvious, reasonable answer to this question, and Richt rightly has retained his post. Now, though, it is not difficult to imagine there are plenty of people who could guide Georgia to losses against Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida, and surely some who could do better than that.

The injuries to Gurley and Chubb were massive blows, and they were not Richt’s fault. Those injuries distract from other shortcomings on both sides of the ball, though, including the defensive secondary and the post-Aaron Murray quarterback situation, that are Richt’s responsibility.

At some point, Richt’s tenure in Athens will end, and the question now before UGA is when to end it. Coaching changes are not silver bullets for programs, or at least not fast-acting ones, so replacing Richt likely will subject Georgia to a rebuilding period. The impending arrival of highly regarded quarterback recruit Jacob Eason in January may make now the perfect time for the school to bring in a new head coach, who can rebuild the program around Eason as he matures.

The risk with this approach is that Eason (and other top recruits currently committed to Georgia) may abandon Georgia and follow Richt to his next job. James Franklin’s departure from Vanderbilt is just the latest reminder that many recruits commit to a coach, rather than a school, and that a coach’s departure, for whatever reason, is likely to have player-personnel consequences as well.

Recent activity and comments from Eason suggest that he may see himself as a Richt recruit, rather than a UGA recruit, and the nature of Eason’s commitment certainly will be a factor in the school’s decision regarding Richt’s future. There remain reasons to retain and dispatch Richt, but, at least in the near term, Eason’s desires may tip the scale.

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