Guerry Clegg commentary on Georgia football: Mark Richt has to solve program's problems, but first he must admit them

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerJanuary 2, 2011 

Mark Richt said all the right things. Losing seven games is unacceptable. He vowed to lead Georgia back to national prominence. He assured Georgia fans that changes will be made, and that problems will be identified and corrected.

“We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen again in the future,” Richt told the assembled media after the Liberty Bowl loss to, um, Central Florida.

But anyone expecting coaching staff changes will be disappointed.

“It’s more of how we go about our business. We’re going to improve. We’re going to get Georgia where it belongs.”

We’ll see.

Two hundred and forty-three days remain until the Bulldogs can begin to erase the bitter aftertaste of the 2010 season. From a standpoint of perception, there’s almost nothing to gain and much to lose. They can’t win a game for another 243 days. That’s 243 days that Richt must hope none of his players get arrested.

What can -- and must -- be gained is a strong finish to this recruiting class. Carver’s Isaiah Crowell is not Herschel Walker, because nobody is. But signing Crowell is just as important to Georgia now as landing Herschel was in 1980. Bringing in immediate help from junior college -- particularly at nose tackle -- is just as important.

Opening the season against Boise State presents a considerable risk-reward opportunity. A win over Boise State would begin to restore the credibility lost in three consecutive years of decline. The last drop of credibility evaporated Friday in the Dogs’ 10-6 loss to Central Florida.

Even if the Dogs had somehow managed to escape, would an ugly win over a Conference USA team in a bottom-tier bowl have been any less hollow? It would have been on par with the win over Georgia Tech -- unimpressive, uninspiring and probably undeserved.

Under Richt, Georgia has won two SEC championships and finished as high as No. 2 in the country. For that, Richt deserves the opportunity to fix this mess.

It’s hard to see hope now through the black smoke still smoldering from this season. But the opportunity for a respectable turnaround is there. Consider the five SEC teams that beat Georgia. Arkansas will be gone from the schedule, replaced by Mississippi. South Carolina and Auburn each lose a lot of experience. Florida must adjust to a new coach. Mississippi State must come to Athens.

While there’s so such thing as a soft ride in the SEC, this is as close as it gets. Although winning every game may not be realistic, every game is realistically winnable.

But first, Georgia must solve its problems. And to solve the Dogs’ problems, Richt first must identify them. Or maybe admit them.

There’s mounting evidence that Mike Bobo is nothing more than a serviceable quarterbacks coach. The Bulldogs returned starters at every position, except quarterback, and multiple starters in every area. So they had experience and depth to support a talented freshman quarterback. Yet, not counting the opening season warm-up against Louisiana-Lafayette, the offense ended the season just as it began -- mustering two scrawny field goals. It’s one thing to do that on the road against South Carolina with a quarterback who never had taken a college snap. It’s quite another to do that against a mid-level team on a neutral field with said quarterback having a full season under his belt, plus a full month to prepare.

In fairness to Bobo, the Dogs’ offense statistically was on par with Alabama’s and LSU’s and better than Florida’s. So to lay all the blame at Bobo’s feet would be not only unfair but also inaccurate.

The defense looked maddeningly lost at times. The most telling statistic about the team and the season is this: The Bulldogs’ defense ranked dead-last in the SEC in third-down efficiency. Opponents were successful on 42.6 percent of the time. In SEC games, that statistic was a staggering 50.7 percent.

That statistic could say any number of things. The players struggled to grasp the schemes installed by first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Or perhaps they just lacked the personnel to execute the scheme. Then again, it may say something about Grantham’s play-calling on critical downs.

All of that is for Richt to figure out.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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