A year ago at this very time — following Thanksgiving weekend — Bo Pelini’s run at Nebraska was felt to be on its last legs. This turned out to be true primarily because of the friction Pelini created within the Nebraska athletic department. However, there was always a strong case to make that Pelini deserved to be fired on the merits.
“But he won nine games,” his defenders said. That’s a reasonable argument to make, I should clarify. It’s certainly valid and legitimate and worth taking into consideration.
What I like to stress, however, in a discussion of win totals is the composition of opponents on a given schedule.
For years, I have tried to make the point that a given record should not be automatically assigned a given degree of importance, the exception being 13-0. If you do that, you’ve done something special, even if you played a comparatively weak slate of opponents.
It seems to me that of all the win totals which generate the most debate and discussion, 9-3 seems to be the No. 1 seed of “controversial records” in college football. That’s a .750 winning percentage, and it conveys the outward appearance of strength.
Yet, if you look under the hood, you’ll see in many cases that 9-3 (or 9-4 after a bowl game) can be arrived at without too many accomplishments of note. Such was the case with Pelini on multiple occasions in Nebraska.
His 2014 season — also his last one in Lincoln — offers a perfect example.
Nebraska defeated an FCS team; Florida Atlantic; no-longer-good Fresno State; and an okay-but-not-great Miami (Fla.) team out of conference. The Huskers then beat Illinois; a not-good version of Northwestern; Rutgers, Purdue, and Iowa.
Bo Pelini lost to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan State, the three toughest teams on Nebraska’s schedule.
The 9-3 record looked great, but its substance was minimal to nonexistent.
That was a representative season for Pelini in Lincoln, not an aberrational one. Call it “drifting at a high level,” as opposed to drifting at the sea-level mark of 6-6 or 7-5.
You can have unimpressive 9-3 seasons in college football. Maybe once in a great while, you can have an unimpressive 10-2 season, but that’s a much rarer species. A 9-3 season without a conspicuous moment of great stature and glory can rather easily be achieved. At the end of teams’ 12-game seasons (which is right now, at this precise point on the calendar every year), it’s time to evaluate teams not only through their win totals, but how they arrived at them and which teams they beat to get there.
Bo Pelini was the master of the empty 9-3 season.
As we pivot to the news on Sunday afternoon that Mark Richt has been fired at the University of Georgia, it’s plain to see that his 2015 season is a “Bo Pelini Special,” cut from the very same fabric.
Georgia, in 2015, gained its nine wins from a greatly diminished Auburn team; a horrid SEC East (naturally getting trounced by the one remotely good team in the division, Florida, and losing to the other particularly talented team in the division, Tennessee); and a non-conference slate comprised of 3-9 Georgia Tech, Southern University, Georgia Southern, and Louisiana-Monroe.
Nine wins exist, but name any single win which rates as an impressive achievement for a program with Georgia’s resources and expectations. You can’t.
Everything which might have applied to Les Miles and LSU (a team that’s 8-3 and would have been 9-3 if allowed to play its 12th game against an FCS opponent, McNeese State) applies more fully to Georgia. If there was a case for firing Les Miles (not a very good one), a better case existed for firing Richt. This doesn’t mean I approve of the firing. What it does mean is that Georgia needs a rock star already lined up, given that it has chosen to part ways with Richt.
LSU courted Jimbo Fisher last week and then reversed course on Miles when Fisher said “no thanks.” LSU made a hash of that situation, but it at least had the good sense to eat its mistake when confronted with the reality that Fisher wasn’t coming.
Georgia has already pulled the trigger with Richt. Therefore, as a highly credentialed coach — one who took the Bulldogs to the next level from 2002 through 2007 and almost regained the mountaintop in 2012 — exits the stage, the discussion must turn to the successor Between The Hedges.
Again, it better be a rock star.
Also, as Virginia Tech has shown us, if it’s a rising young coach, the “opposite-side” coordinator has to be a home run as well. If Head Coaching Candidate A is an offensive guru, he has to bring in an elite defensive coordinator. If Head Coaching Candidate B is a defensive whiz, he has to bring aboard a top-notch offensive coordinator.
Richt in many ways sank his ship in Athens by making the awful hire of Brian Schottenheimer as his offensive coordinator. Bob Stoops, another embattled coach who was struggling to regain his fastball at Oklahoma, hired Lincoln Riley as his offensive coordinator. He’s now in the College Football Playoff.
Yeah — coordinators matter.
However, as much as coordinators do matter in all this, they should not be elevated to a head coaching position at a job with Georgia’s pressure and expectations.
In other words, as the discussion surrounding Richt’s replacement gains momentum, the Bulldogs need to stay the heck away from Kirby Smart.
It’s not that Smart might not become a great head coach. He very well could. However, you generally don’t give a blue-chip, old-money program to a man who has never been a collegiate head coach before. If Smart wants a top job — Georgia certainly rates as one — he needs to get the UCF job or the Memphis job and prove that he can be the boss first. Then, in a few years — with good-enough results — he can expect a plum position.
Georgia needs — at the very least — to get a proven head coach who is currently excelling. When Nebraska hired Mike Riley to replace Bo Pelini, it hired a coach who had lost his fastball. Riley’s peak period ended in late 2008. One doubts the Bulldogs will hire a retread who is past his prime, of course, so the main concern here is that Georgia will fall in love with Smart instead of selecting someone who already has some head-coaching accomplishments under his belt, and is ready to take on the various off-field aspects of the head-coaching job description.
Let’s say Kirby Smart is hired. Let’s say he hires an average offensive coordinator.
If those two things happen, Georgia fans will lament a missed opportunity to dominate the SEC East over the next several years.
You’ll also see 9-3 seasons a lot like the one Mark Richt — as great a coach as he in fact is — just authored on his way out the door in Athens.