Is it better for one’s team to play poorly and win or play well and lose? That is the question that I found weighing on my brain as I tried to decompress on Saturday night after a ludicrously entertaining day of football.* Georgia gave a strong account of themselves against South Carolina, outgaining the Gamecocks (albeit by a mere 41 yards) and getting eight more first downs. Georgia certainly seemed to dominate the first half, but found themselves trailing at the half because of red zone issues (that old Mark Richt bugaboo) and a highly improbable fake punt touchdown for South Carolina. Georgia lost because the Dawgs gave up three non-offensive touchdowns. Thus, the sense I left with was that Georgia is a good team that keeps doing dumb things and those dumb things blunt the team’s overall quality. Yeah, every team will give up a fake punt every now and again, but Georgia seems unique in letting a fake punt turn into a 68-yard touchdown. Every team will give up a sack every now and again, but Georgia managed to let their sack turn into a back-breaking touchdown. In short, Georgia lost because they did their best to turn Melvin Ingram into a household name.**
* – During the NFL games yesterday, I found myself question the tastes of the American viewing public. How in the world do most people find the NFL to be a more entertaining product?
** – Saturday’s games were a nice illustration of the fact that SEC defensive linemen are the major difference between the conference’s teams and everyone else’s. I was flipping between the Georgia game and the Alabama game and Penn State’s defensive line seemed to be inert compared to the other three teams I was watching. And the difference between South Carolina, which can throw Ingram and Jadaveon Clowney at opponents, and Michigan, which barely got any plays from its defensive linemen against Notre Dame, was jarring. Michigan and Penn State are two of the elite programs in the Big Ten; if they have fewer quality defensive linemen than South Carolina, then something has gone wrong for Jim Delany’s conference.
In contrast, Michigan won on Saturday night despite the fact that they seemed for long stretches of the game to be the second-best team on the field. Notre Dame dominated from the outset, jumping out to a 14-point lead and only failing to end the game in the first half because Tommy Rees threw two interceptions when he was excessively eager in forcing the ball to Michael Floyd. Michigan rallied in the fourth quarter on the strength of an epic play by Denard Robinson – the one where he fired a strike to Junior Hemingway to get the Michigan offense going when they trailed by 17* – and then a series of jump balls from the Jeff Bowden school of offensive coordinating. This will be an odd statement about a team that gained 452 yards and scored 35 points, including an 80-yard drive in 26 seconds with the game on the line, but Michigan’s offense looked broken. Michigan got nothing out of its tailbacks or the running game generally when they lined up in the I-formation. Denard Robinson missed open receivers throughout the first half and got little help from his receivers with a number of drops. Michigan looked stuck in the no man’s land between the spread ‘n’ shred and the pro-style offense that Borges favors. At some point in the game, Borges apparently said “f*** it, let’s see if our receivers can out-jump their corners” and lo and behold, Michigan emerged from their first night game with an epic win against a rival.** In short, the Michigan defense is still highly suspect,*** the offense is searching for an identity beyond “Denard, do something awesome,” and the pleasure of an epic win is tempered by the knowledge that this Michigan team is going to struggle in the Big Ten. Again.
* – Is it fair to say that Michigan won and Georgia lost because of what happened when their quarterbacks were draped by defenders on key plays in the fourth quarter? Aaron Murray was entangled with a defender and fumbled; Denard Robinson was draped with a defender and threw an inch-perfect pass to Hemingway for a huge game to ignite the Wolverines’ rally. It’s easy to say that Murray should have known to take the sack, but you can’t take the impulse to make plays out of guys like Robinson and Murray. You just hope that they will avoid killer mistakes.
** – I came of age as a Michigan fan in the late 80s with a series of heartbreaking losses to Notre Dame. In 1988, Michigan didn’t allow an offensive touchdown, but watch Reggie Ho make kick after kick and then missed their own game-winning field goal on the last play in South Bend. In ‘89, Bo kicked to the Rocket twice. In ‘90, Michigan had their foot on the throat of the Irish and then the combo of a terrible interception by Elvis Grbac and a typical Holtz-era play of the Irish completing a long pass that deflected from one of their receivers to another contrived to extend Michigan’s losing streak against Notre Dame to four. With that context in mind, there is no team that I enjoy deflating more than Notre Dame. Suffice it to say that I don’t feel the slightest amount of guilt about how Irish fans feel about losing three straight to Michigan in the final minute.
*** – After Michigan’s first go-ahead touchdown with 1:12 remaining, I seriously pro/conned in my head whether an onside kick was a good idea. 42 seconds later, Michigan blew a coverage and the Irish were back in the lead.
Despite the fact that one team is 2-0 and the other is 0-2, Michigan and Georgia both look like 8-4 teams. The Dawgs are a good team that played the two best teams on the schedule in weeks one and two. As long as they don’t have an emotional implosion, they should turn the ship around. Conversely, Michigan leaves the two best teams on its schedule for the last two games of the season and it’s questionable as to whether the team is very good at all. The question is how the two fan bases will feel about 8-4. For Michigan fans, that will likely feel like a success, as Michigan hasn’t had a better record since 2006. As long as the team (and specifically the defense) improves over the course of the year and Hoke keeps the outstanding recruiting class together, then 2011 will be a success.* For Georgia fans, 8-4 will be ambiguous. On the one hand, that would be an improvement. If it includes a win in Jacksonville, then that would be a decent season. On the other hand, 8-4 in a season in which Georgia has the easiest possible draw of teams from the West isn’t a major accomplishment. Would that be an endorsement that Richt isn’t in terminal decline? I suspect that one way or another, Georgia fans would like 2011 to be a definitive season. Either Richt conclusively establishes that he still has it or he loses enough that the program can move on. 8-4 would be the worst of all worlds because it would be ambiguous.
* – In trying to understand why I wasn’t as tense as I would normally be in the late stages of a close game against a hated enemy, I came up with two reasons. First, because I am not intellectually committed to the Hoke hire the way I was with Rich Rodriguez, I can simply enjoy Michigan games without feeling like my worldview is at stake. Second, first-year coaches aren’t supposed to win too much. If Bob Stoops, and Jim Tressel lost five games apiece in their first years at Oklahoma and Ohio State and Nick Saban and Pete Carroll lost six in year one at Alabama and USC, then it’s fair to say that winning a bunch of games in the first year of a tenure is not a prerequisite for future success. As long as he doesn’t go 3-9, then things are fine.