Sunday, October 22
Waiting for a red-letter day.
If you think this is lonely, imagine being from Starkville . . .
There are many things elevating college football in the Southeast above all other sports, or even above college football in other parts of the country, but I realized another one Saturday: the simple question "Who y'all got this weekend?" If you're a fan of one team, you will find yourself asked this question many times by fans of other teams, not with malice but with simple curiosity, and maybe even a hint of solidarity. It's a subtle indication of empathy with your struggles -- it indicates a desire to be reassured that everyone else has it just as tough as your team does, but as such, it also indicates an understanding that everyone does have it pretty tough. College football may not have reached the heights of parity that the NFL has, but the level of competition in the SEC is still such that you can lose games you're not supposed to, struggle in areas you're not supposed to, find yourself mired in a dogfight even though you were being touted as the greatest team on God's earth. "Who y'all got this weekend?" is a not-so-secret handshake signifying that you understand this, and you recognize that understanding in others, too.
The question was posed to me Saturday by a clerk at a BP station halfway between Heflin and Ranburne, Alabama, as I made the early-morning drive over to Athens for the Bulldogs' next game. She was wearing a crimson "Bama Girl" sweatshirt and either recognized the red-and-black #4 jersey I was wearing or saw me putting up the red super-G flags on my car windows while I filled up outside. "Mississippi State," I told her, then added, "God willing, we won't screw it up like last week," and she gave the half-chuckle, half-sigh of someone who's been there. Not everyone would've understood, but she did.
Quarterbacking in the SEC: like pimping, not easy.
There was a part of me that hoped Georgia would break out and drop a three-TD blowout on the Bizarro Bulldogs, but deep down there was another part -- the part that made the weary comment to the BP clerk -- that knew that wouldn't happen, that the 18-point spread would go uncovered, that I'd be walking out of Sanford Stadium probably having witnessed another victory but somehow not being all that thrilled about it. Sure enough, the game followed a distressing pattern set up two weeks ago against Tennessee and repeated verbatim ever since: Strong start, solid lead at halftime, and then a turnover-induced third-quarter swoon leading to 10 virtually free points that let the opponent right back in the game. Fortunately this game didn't end up with an L like the last two, but it wasn't for lack of trying: Down by three and having to drive from their own 19 with just 45 seconds left in the game, Missy State completed two passes for 58 yards to bring them down to the Georgia 23, and only an ill-timed fumble by their QB prevented them from likely kicking a game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime, and who knows what would've happened after that.
Our locker room at halftime must have the ambience of an opium den; seriously, that's about the only hypothesis I can give for how we've managed to so completely crap our pants in the second halves of the past three games. While the other team is getting some version of the "Win one for the Gipper" speech, our guys are eating turkey and watching "Requiem for a Dream." Look, I've heard the "We're just not that good this year" explanation from a number of people, and I've come to terms with it -- believe me, after you've seen your team get punked by Vanderbilt on Homecoming, you don't have much choice. But "just not that good" means different things to different teams, and way down deep beneath the part of me that's understanding and forgiving and really, really listened to Father Brian's sermon this past Sunday when he talked about paying more attention to what God wants than what we want for ourselves, I just can't shake the feeling that even a rebuilding Georgia team, even one as behind the 8-ball as this one is, shouldn't be getting played so close by so many ridonkulously bad teams.
Whoo . . . halftime over already? Guess we better get back out on the field then.
Originally I had planned for this post to compare the current crop of Bulldogs with the team from 1996 -- "worst team of the past decade" is a relative term, not to mention a subjective one, but that was the last time we finished a season with a losing record. I quickly realized that such a comparison wouldn't have proved much in the end, because you try to do something like that and pretty soon you're getting into highly speculative discussions of which team from this year would hypothetically beat so-and-so from such-and-such year and how many Georgia wideouts can do the Humpty Dance on the head of a pin and blah blah blah. But I will say this: "Just not that good" or no, we're doing a lot of stuff that previous Georgia teams, just-not-that-good ones included, didn't do. F'rinstance, I have many vivid memories of the '99 season (in the sense that your memories of being in a horrific car crash or getting mugged at gunpoint might also be "vivid"); I remember us being down 17-3 going into the fourth quarter against a Vanderbilt team certainly no worse than this year's, yet instead of losing, we somehow stormed back to win by 10 points. I also remember a pass defense as bad as anything Hal Mumme's ever yakked out onto the field, yet we never gave up more than 50 points to anybody in regulation. (Yeah, sure, Tech did it in overtime, but you can thank Al Ford, not the Georgia D, for those last three points.)
What's the difference between this year and those other teams? We discussed it at length at the tailgate after the Missy State game, and nearly universally agreed that it boils down to a lack of leadership. Not leadership in the sense that the current veterans aren't being role models for the younger guys or aren't helping them along with their playing skills, because I'm sure they're doing that, but leadership in the sense that there's nobody to provide the emotional spark that, say, David Pollack or Thomas Davis or Richard Seymour provided some years ago. I've gone on at length about how that emotional spark seems to have disappeared with the departure of Brian VanGorder, but until talking to some of my fellow Dawgbloggers and other folks more plugged into the program than I am, I didn't realize just how lacking it was among the players, too. I'm not going to get mad and lay into them for that; leadership isn't something that you can pick up like a throwing style or a blocking technique, and it's not reasonable to expect any one guy to just randomly burst out of his shell and become that fiery motivator. Still, with all the potential and raw talent on this team, it hurts when you think about what could've happened if just one guy had stepped up and been the firebreather.
Now, it goes without saying that we've all gotten spoiled as hell down here in Bulldog Nation. When Richt "blew the lid off" the program and started taking us to SEC championships instead of December bowls, we talked ourselves into a mindset where even the rebuilding seasons had major potential and we'd never have to suffer through a Donnanesque season again. Of course, that isn't true, and never was; no program, no matter how mighty, is immune to those kinds of seasons. Even Oklahoma "only" won eight games last year. Ohio State "only" won eight in 2004. Shit, look at Tennessee last year and where they are now. So I have plenty of hope that Georgia can dust themselves off from a similarly disappointing season and put it behind them next year. I'll admit, walking out of the stadium after we barfed one up to Vanderbilt, I was no less tempted than anyone else by grand hallucinations of the "sky is falling"/"we're turning into Ole Miss" variety, but after taking time to simmer down a little I've gotten to a point where I can at least notice and appreciate the reasons to be optimistic about 2007. Paul Westerdawg, bless his soul, can think of plenty.
And yet as petty as this may sound, this season still hasn't been a lot of fun for me. Maybe I'm selfish for even mentioning that. Maybe I should feel guilty for being selfish. Maybe I'm a wuss for feeling guilty. But anyway, it seems like there's something in this team that hasn't been realized, something that could break out and do something special this season if someone would just step the fuck up. I'd be really disappointed if that never happened, but the thing is, I know the coaches would be too. So I'll continue waiting for the spark to get lit. Maybe it happens November 11; maybe it doesn't happen until the weekend after Thanksgiving. Maybe it doesn't happen until next year. But I'd much rather wait for that moment than for the sky to fall.
The gas face:
I hear the kids are calling these "touchdowns." Anybody heard of them?
· Here's something I will not be doing under any circumstances, though: I will never, ever, ever boo one of my own players. Not Joe Tereshinski, not Mohamed Massaquoi, not in a box, not with a fox. (And I throw fucking toasters, for crying out loud!) In case you didn't see the game on TV -- and you didn't, did you, 'cause it wasn't televised -- the crowd booed Massaquoi in the second half when he dropped a pass and then applauded when he was taken off the field for the subsequent play. I thought most of our fans were above this; maybe I was wrong. But not only do some of them rejoice in booing our own players, a select few out on the fringe actually think you're not a true fan unless you show your displeasure with subpar performance by booing, because booing actually helps the team by informing the coaching staff that the fans want a change of some kind. Yeah, I'm sure Richt was sitting there the whole time thinking, "What? The crowd is displeased with MoMass? Then I shall substitute him forthwith! Thank you, boo-birds, for helping me make a personnel decision I was too stupid to make myself!"
I mean, I blog on a weekly basis about who I think is doing well and who's not, but I can't recall ever having indulged in the delusion that the coaching staff gave one tenth of a flying fuck what I thought. And you know something, I don't think I particularly want the coaches to give that much of a flying fuck about the fans' knee-jerk opinions, because a coach who lets himself be governed by fan opinion is really no better than any of the politicians up in Washington who won't so much as take a dump without looking at the poll numbers first. Never mind that if there were any recruits at the game, I'm sure the very last place in the world they'd want to play at is in front of a group of fans who will forget about anything good they've done and shower them with boos they minute they screw up. Attention, you so-called fans: If you love booing Georgia players so much, go become a Georgia Tech fan. I hear they're hurting for them right now. (More here from the always-insightful Jmac.)
· Speaking of the Bees, I know it's not a sign of being in a good place mentally when your most satisfying moment of the weekend comes not from watching your own team win but rather from watching your biggest rival get housed, but . . . well, thank you, Georgia Tech, for giving me hope for November 25th. And while I can't say I approve of Clemson's sartorial choices on Saturday, you gotta admit that more than a few teams have ridden the wacky-uniform trend to fairly large wins of late. Red pants for the Florida game? Maybe monochrome red unis? Look, I'm just planting seeds here. I'd send them out wearing Vera Wang dresses and Timberlands if I thought it'd give 'em a ghost of a chance in Jacksonville this weekend.
· Oh, and I know I'm not supposed to blog about anything remotely fashion-related here, but apparently this year's kid-tested, mother-approved Georgia sorority-girl uniform includes leggings worn with everything short of a burial gown. Update your Christmas lists accordingly.
· Did I read this right? The team that invented giving up, coming back from a five-TD deficit to complete the biggest comeback in D-IA history? I wonder if John L. Smith slapped the Northwestern coach after the game.
· As far as the NFL goes, as a Redskins fan, I sense that we're just weeks away from officially writing off the '06 season and simply awaiting the beginning of the Jason Campbell Era. If you had "I Wish I Was Dead" in the "What Is The Correct Response To This Development?" pool, congratulations, pick up your prize package at the concierge desk.
The minute Brunell breaks a hip, I'm so in there.
· Cheerleader Curse Watch: It lives. Again. Arizona, the alma mater of SI.com Cheerleader of the Week Taylor Hendrickson, welcomed Oregon State to their house this past weekend and got whacked 17-10; schools with cheerleaders named to CotW honors are now 0-4 in the games immediately following said recognition, and an aggregate 3-8 post-CotW. SI, hear me now: I will give you five thousand dollars to feature one of these girls this week. C'mon, they're adorable!
Five dimes, fellas. You know where to reach me.