The best way to listen to The Paul Finebaum Show, I’ve found, is downloading only the intriguing interviews. His trolling and sometimes unhinged callers notwithstanding, Finebaum is one of the best interviewers in sports talk radio. Barrett Sallee’s appearance on June 16 would certainly qualify as intriguing, particularly his suggestion that the Georgia Bulldogs might be national championship contenders in 2014.
Mark Richt and the polarizing opinions he generates fascinate me. In my World Cup comparison column, I drew the parallel between Georgia football and England soccer. The Mark Richt era perfectly crystallizes that theme.
At 126-45, Richt is one of the most winningest active coaches. The list of coaches with three or more seasons under their belt with a better winning percent is short: Chris Petersen, Urban Meyer, David Shaw, Bob Stoops, Nick Saban, Mark Hudspeth, Jimbo Fisher and Brian Kelly.
Trim that down further to include only coaches with championships, and just Meyer, Stoops, Saban and Fisher remain. Indeed, the club is exclusive but Richt has yet to gain membership. It’s the one box left unchecked on an otherwise impressive resume.
Could this really be the year he fulfills it?
Most of the College Football Playoff chatter as it pertains to the SEC focuses on Alabama and Auburn—understandably so. The rivals have combined to win four of the conference’s last five championships.
The SEC West collectively has monopolized the SEC title in that same five-year span.
On one hand, Sallee’s projection makes perfect sense. At the same time, Georgia has enough question marks that, with a few injuries akin to the 2013 season, another eight-win season strikes me as just as feasible.
A disastrous 2010 season notwithstanding, Georgia under Richt has a dog in the championship fight almost every season. But save the 2002 and 2005 seasons, the SEC crown has eluded it.
National championship glory has been tauntingly close. The just-short final drive against Alabama in the 2012 SEC Championship Game is the most fresh example, but the 2007 team suffered a four-point loss to South Carolina early in the season that contributed to the Bulldogs missing the SEC Championship Game.
Both defeats are noteworthy because on paper, Georgia was a complete mismatch for national championship game participants Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Personally, I roll my eyes at any sentence that combines the words “Mark Richt” and “hot seat” in any context other than “The metal bench on which Mark Richt sat this summer afternoon was truly a hot seat.”
Alas, there those who invoke that most dreaded of coaching positions when discussing Richt. With one or both of those titles, his more adamant detractors would have zero ammunition.
Last year after coming ever-so-close against Alabama, and returning senior quarterback Aaron Murray along with the two-headed backfield of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, 2013 looked like it had the potential to be the year.
A Week 1 loss at Clemson quickly put a damper on things, but rallying to beat South Carolina the next week was a huge step for the program. The 2007 loss sparked a rivalry between the Bulldogs and Gamecocks—and to an extent, Mark Richt and Steve Spurrier—that became a thorn in Georgia’s side.
But as the injuries piled up, so did too did the losses. Murray’s career ended in a most unfitting and unceremonious fashion, though it began the transition to Hutson Mason early.
Mason is relatively unproven. He played in the Gator Bowl, a loss to Nebraska, but little is known about how he’ll fare in the weekly SEC. He talked about that very thing with Seth Emerson:
“I haven’t had a lot of experience, I know that, and I know people have a lot of question marks, and rightfully so,” Mason said. “I’ve had two games, and I haven’t proven a lot. That’s just kind of my plan, to stay inside that bubble and work as hard as I can. Hopefully I can make an impression that can last.”
Mason drew rave reviews out of spring practices from offensive coordinator Mike Bobo:
“I thought Hutson had an outstanding spring. Really stepped up in the leadership department. Had great command of the offense. Was extremely accurate. Came every day prepared to get better. Even today was one of his better days, on the last days. He was extremely focused. I expect him to take that confident that he gained this spring and his leadership abilities and apply it to the summer.”
Though lacking in game experience, Mason had four years to learn from Murray. Moreover, his job won’t be too difficult with a loaded wide receiving corps and the Heisman candidate Gurley returning from injury.
But then, offense should be of much less concern than a defense that surrendered 31 points or more in each of Georgia’s four regular-season losses.
Replacing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with Jeremy Pruitt was perhaps the best trade since Frank Robinson-for-Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson.
Pruitt was defensive backs coach for three different national championship-winning teams at Alabama and Florida State—all three of which featured superior secondaries. Though what he has to operate with his limited because of transfers and dismissals, Pruitt has the proven acumen to get the Bulldog defensive backs up to speed.
Put these pieces together, and a Georgia national championship does not seem the least bit far-fetched. But then, I could be just as quickly convinced the Bulldogs finish third in the SEC East.