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Is Georgia the most underachieving team in college football?

The Dawgs have come close to playing for titles, but haven't produced elite teams despite excellent resources. Is there more to it?

The 1980 Georgia Bulldogs are revered in the Peach State.

The Dawgs came from obscurity, as Georgia went 6-5 in 1979 with home losses to Wake Forest and pre-George Welsh Virginia. The team was led by a somewhat memorable freshman named Herschel. And in a helpful twist, it produced a pair of indelible memories: "My god, a freshman!" and "Lindsay Scott!"

However, the fact that Georgia needed a rally to eke out a one-point win over a Tennessee team that would go 5-6 and a late miracle to beat a Florida team that would go 8-4 illustrates that the 1980 Bulldogs were not a dominant champion.

The Dawgs' SRS number (a team-comparison stat useful for comparing teams throughout history; it's explained here) for 1980 was 19.48. Only a few teams in the last 35 years have won national titles with ratings below 20.

National champion SRS rating
1984 BYU 14.68
2002 Ohio State 18.13
2007 LSU 18.41
1992 Alabama 18.97
1990 Georgia Tech 19.28
1990 Colorado 19.45
1980 Georgia 19.48
2006 Florida 19.66
1998 Tennessee 19.96

The teams on that list broadly fit into two categories: (1) team crowned champion in a season in which there was not an elite (1984, 1990, and 2007 come to mind); or (2) team that benefited from not playing many other contenders and/or won an anomalous game against a superior opponent (1980, 1998, and 2002).

As evidenced by the absence of any Georgia team on the list of the best teams since 1980 to not win national titles, the Dawgs haven't had any especially elite teams, such that Georgia fans could say, "OK, we were lucky in 1980, but deserved more in [insert season], so it all balances out."

Another way to demonstrate Georgia's failure to produce great teams -- despite its prominent status and annual top-10 recruiting classes -- is to compare the Dawgs to the other members of the 16 programs with the best winning percentages in college football history. Here is the number of teams that each of those 16 has produced since 1980 with SRS numbers above 20:

Number of SRS 20+ teams since 1980
Florida State 13
Miami 10
Nebraska 10
Florida 8
Oklahoma 7
Alabama 6
Ohio State 5
Penn State 5
Notre Dame 4
Texas 3
Auburn 2
Michigan 2
Tennessee 2
Georgia 1

And keep in mind that the starting point of 1980 is favorable to Georgia, as it captures the program's best stretch: the period from 1980-83 in which Georgia went 44-4. If we reframed by looking at the last three decades, then there would be a zero next to Georgia's name.

There are two ways to look at near-misses. One is to look at how many times a program produced teams that would've been elite in any season. According to the numbers, Georgia has not had such a team in years. Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, and Tom Osborne all suffered under the "can't win the big one" label before they won their first titles, but their list of near-miss teams indicated their programs would break through.

The second way is to ask, "Did this team come close to playing for a national title on the field?" If you use that method, then Mark Richt has had three near-miss teams:

  • 2002: Georgia finished 12-1, which in most seasons would be sufficient for an SEC team to book a place in the title game. It happened that the Dawgs went 12-1 in a year in which two major teams (Ohio State and Miami) went 12-0.
  • 2007: Georgia went 10-2 and finished on a hot streak, which might have been enough in a jumbled season to get a ticket against an underwhelming Ohio State. But the Dawgs were jumped by LSU in the BCS rankings after the Tigers beat Tennessee in the SEC Championship.
  • 2012: 11-1 Georgia played Alabama for the right to play an overrated Notre Dame, but came up eight yards short.

One analysis leads to the conclusion that Georgia is not close to producing championship-caliber teams; the other leads to the opposite conclusion, which is that Georgia has been unlucky and just needs better bounces to end the 35-year title drought.

And that gets us to the big question: Is Georgia an underachieving giant or a team whose good, but not great, results reflect the program's natural state?

There are two potential answers.

Either Georgia is the biggest underachiever in the country ...

As the 2015 draft reminds us, the state is loaded with talent, but Georgia doesn't get the most out of it. Georgia trails only California, Texas, and Florida in talent production. The aforementioned states have multiple major programs, whereas Georgia's only state rival has academic restrictions, fewer resources, and a geographically far-flung fan base. And with that favorable position, UGA fans have to go back all the way to 1980 for a national championship.

... or Georgia's situation is more complicated for three reasons.

First, there is a panoply of historical powers within about two hours of the Peach State border: Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Auburn, Tennessee, and Clemson. Add in South Carolina and others and you have a highly competitive environment for recruiting.

Second, the state is transplant-heavy, which means less pressure for players to stay home than in, say, Louisiana and Ohio.

And third, the University of Georgia appears happy to take severe action against players for minor offenses that would not merit punishment at other schools. Pair that with a local police force seemingly bent on arresting players, and it is harder for Georgia to retain players as compared to its rivals.

If we buy the explanation that Georgia is an underachiever, then Richt producing more 9-3 seasons should not be satisfying. If we buy the explanation that Georgia faces unique headwinds, then Richt is doing a fine job.

What do you think?