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Georgia's Mark Richt Is Charlie Brown, and Alabama's Nick Saban Is Lucy Holding the Football

When Georgia plays Alabama this weekend, Bulldogs coach Mark Richt will have yet another chance to prove he and his program can be more than just very good.

by Michael Weinreb
Oct 1 2015, 3:05pm

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Can we begin by engaging in some over-analysis of the look on a coach's face? After all, Alabama and Georgia play each other this week for the first time since the 2012 SEC Championship game, and that agonizing three-second tracking shot of Mark Richt when his team fails to score touchdown in the final seconds gets me every time. It is the visage of a man wearied by one defeat after another, a man who has come so close so many times that it feels as if he's grown to expect the worst. It is the signature expression of college football's Charlie Brown upon charging headlong at the thing he desires and getting fooled once more.

Is this an unfair assessment of Richt's mindset? Maybe it is. Maybe I'm being harsh. A few more seconds, and maybe everything's different for Georgia that season. A few more seconds—or if the ball isn't deflected into the hands of receiver Chris Conley, who has no time to do anything but react with the instincts of a wide receiver—and maybe Bulldogs run one more play and Aaron Murray throws a touchdown pass and Georgia beats Alabama instead of losing 32-28. A few more seconds, and maybe Georgia wins the national championship that year instead of Alabama, and maybe that look on Richt's face—and the very way that we perceive the man himself—is completely different.

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Then again, that was not Richt's first high-profile failure. There may be no well-liked and accomplished coach in America who is more defined by what he hasn't done more than Richt. In his first 14 seasons, Richt won at least 10 games on nine different occasions, but, despite consistently having one of the most talented rosters in the country, he has never won a national championship. Georgia has played in a bowl game every year under Richt, but not in a major bowl since 2007. In addition to that 2012 SEC Championship loss, Richt also lost a game to Saban's Alabama team in 2008: his Bulldogs were ranked third in the country and fell behind 31-0 at halftime.

So here we are again, on the precipice of yet another watershed moment when Georgia can alter the balance of power in the SEC from West to East, wherein Richt can reframe the narrative of a career that's largely been defined by high-profile failures, and where the Alabama dynasty feels as fragile as it has this entire decade. It's all set up for Richt, which is as good a reason as any for Georgia fans to be scared to death.

"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose unless we're playing Alabama." --Photo by Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Here's the fascinating difference about the 2015 incarnation of Georgia-Alabama: For once, on the other side, there is also serious panic. This is the first time Alabama hasn't been favored to win a football game since late 2009, an extraordinary run of dominance that encompasses that 2012 SEC title game, as well as three national championships. But after a home loss to Ole Miss two weeks ago, the narrative in Tuscaloosa has become discombobulated. The Crimson Tide seemingly can't settle on a competent quarterback, bouncing between Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman. Because of that, their offense appears uncharacteristically hesitant, and those presumably slanderous blind-item rumors about an Alabama staff member that briefly made the rounds on the Internet last week most likely were a metaphoric display of the discomfort of a fan base that's become accustomed to a program that exudes militant competence.

The overarching notion is that Saban will figure things out eventually, because he always does; the notion is that Alabama rebounds from its defeats by getting even better than it was before. The notion is that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin (have I mentioned him yet?), for all his peccadilloes, actually possesses a pretty competent football mind, and that he'll straighten out one of the Tide's two quarterbacks eventually. Right now, though, the Tide are grasping; after the loss to Ole Miss, there is no room for error if Alabama wants to be considered for the College Football Playoff again this season.

"[Georgia looks] a lot like some of our teams of the past," Saban said during his Monday press conference this week. "Very physical. Don't make a lot of mistakes. Don't beat themselves much. And they play with a lot of toughness. They are very aggressive on both sides of the ball. That's the kind of team we've always sort of aspired to have here, and it certainly looks like that's the kind of team they have developed there."

"Seriously, you'd think Charlie Brown would have figured it out by now." --Photo by Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

These are the kinds of things football coaches tend to say during their Monday press conferences, but this one feels a little bit more meaningful than the rote pablum that Saban tends toward. I imagine he knows what's at stake here; I imagine he recognizes that if he wishes to maintain his position as college football's most impenetrable and dynastic program—if he wishes to maintain the position he's held in all those games his team has been favored in since 2009—he has to prove that no one can out-Alabama Alabama. Certainly not Richt.

And Richt? I imagine he knows that opportunities like this one don't come along too many times. Eventually, you have to nail it; eventually, you have to follow through and win a big game in order to achieve the stature that Saban has. "I don't think we've gotta create motivation [this week]. I think we've gotta temper it," Richt said on Monday night. "And when I say temper it, I mean make sure we channel it in the right way."

I'm not sure that's something Richt has mastered, given his track record. Maybe he gets it right this week. Maybe his team is good enough and lucky enough, and maybe the narrative finally changes. Maybe Mark Richt finally kicks that damn football. But it wouldn't surprise me if he winds up and misses again.