MEMPHIS, Tenn. – For an exercise in Georgia football history, take a look at average offensive statistics from three seasons.
UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo: 'These guys still believed in what we were doing offensively. ... That's what I'm proud of for the season.'
Season A: 34.3 points and 4.3 TDs per game, 6.4 yards per play
Season B: 32.6 points and 4.1 TDs per game, 5.6 yards per play
Season C: 32.1 points and 3.8 TDs per game, 5.5 yards per play
In 2002, Georgia won 13 games, its first SEC title in two decades and the Sugar Bowl, finishing third in the national polls. That was “Season C.”
In 2007, Georgia won 11 games, another Sugar Bowl and finished second in AP poll behind a quarterback that ultimately became the top pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. That team, however, represents “Season B.”
And believe it or not, “Season A” is 2010.
That’s right, those heady statistics are courtesy of a 6-6 team that will play Friday's Liberty Bowl against Conference USA champ Central Florida, to determine whether Mark Richt logs his first losing season or not as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
Numbers, of course, can often be molded in varying ways. But there’s no getting around the fact that by scoring 40 against UCF, this Georgia team would set a new school record -- in only 13 contests -- for points in a season, breaking the mark of 450 set by the 2002 team in 14 games.
As it stands, the 2010 team's 6.4 yards per play is fourth-best in school history. Plus, this UGA squad is the first-ever to score 30 or more points in seven consecutive games, a streak that could reach eight in Memphis.
“We started out a little rugged,” Richt said, “but things started to roll about game – what – five? We’ve done actually very well since then. I know we’ve been moving the ball well and putting points on the board and executing pretty well overall. Some of those things have been set up by defensive turnovers or special teams play, but I think the offense has done well.”
A.J. Green's return drastically improved UGA's offensive numbers in the final eight games.
THE A.J. FACTOR
So how does arguably the most prolific offense in UGA history wind up 6-6?
For starters, Richt grins when mentioning that fifth game as a milestone, as if it’s obvious by now.
When they look back at 2010 in Georgia history, before they talk about tough losses, key turnovers, a new 3-4 defense or the emergence of promising freshman quarterback Aaron Murray, they’ll probably mention the first four games. That’s when star receiver A.J. Green wasn’t available to play.
An NCAA-mandated four-game suspension for selling a game jersey in the offseason left Georgia without Green, and his absence was no small reason behind a 1-4 start.
With Green in the lineup for eight games, UGA averaged 39.3 points and 414.5 yards. Without him for four, those totals were 24.3 points and 352.3 yards.
“We didn’t have explosive plays without A.J. out there, and then we didn’t execute in the crunch situations in the red zone,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We had to be almost perfect without a guy out there that could generate explosive plays, and that’s kind of hard to do offensively, especially when you’ve got a young quarterback."
Green’s saga was especially costly because it was a surprise, and the overall controversy was a distraction that lasted through all of September.
Kris Durham became a rare big-play threat during Green's early absence.
The NCAA didn’t approach Green until late July, and when it did, the initial reason was not because of the jersey sale but to ask questions about an agent-related party that Green did not attend. The $1,000 Green received for selling his 2009 Independence Bowl jersey wasn't discovered until a review of his bank statements.
"I’m not the type of guy that ever got in trouble here and stuff like that," Green said. "Sometimes I couldn’t sleep just thinking about stuff. It was just a painful process."
The official ruling and suspension from the NCAA didn’t come until the season’s second week, and that was after several erroneous media reports saying Green would be cleared.
UGA’s subsequent appeal wasn’t denied until the Friday before the third game.
“One thing, if I had to do it over again, when you first heard about all that stuff with A.J., I would have said, ‘OK, he’s out until he’s cleared,’” Bobo said, “instead of each week, there was kind of hope that he might be back the second game, then he might be back the third game. Your game-plan is still kind of half-A.J., half-not, and we probably should have said, ‘Hey, he ain’t in it. Let’s go on.’
“You understand guys are going to be out, guys are going to be hurt, and you’ve got to adjust. We didn’t do a great job of that, but it wasn’t like he was hurt. He was still there and still practicing, and we didn’t know what game he was going to be back. That was the difficult part.”
After blowing out Louisiana-Lafayette in the first game, Georgia didn’t score a touchdown in a 17-6 loss at South Carolina, the eventual SEC East champ. It only managed one on a desperation late drive at Mississippi State two weeks later, and that came after a late comeback bid fell short against Arkansas, which reached a BCS bowl this season.
But a bad loss at Colorado – in Green’s first game back -- dropped Georgia to 1-4 and cranked up the heat on Richt, Bobo and UGA’s staff to unprecedented levels.
Running or throwing, Aaron Murray tallied more than 3,000 total yards as a redshirt freshman quarterback.
A popular complaint on message board was about the offense's play-calling, prompting a reporter to ask Richt at one point if he was going to resume calling offensive plays (He did not).
Those same gripes haven’t completely vanished, which irks Murray.
“I mean, I don’t know why people complain,” Murray said. “I think we’re going to set about six records this year. We’ve scored 30 points in seven straight games. That’s all due to play-calling. I don’t know how you’re going to complain when we’re throwing 30 points on the board. … If you go back and look at the games that we’ve lost, most of it is due to our errors, us fumbling the ball, throwing interceptions and just really not taking care of the football. I don’t think any of the losses were due to play-calling.”
Yes, Georgia fans, there is hope for the future. And much of it is tied to the young quarterback that in preseason was supposed to be a liability.
His ownership of the early struggles reflects the leadership he began to demonstrate on and off the field. There's no question he passed expectations in both areas.
"Right now, Aaron has done just about everything we could have asked him to do at this point," Richt said. "If we had known he would have been as efficient as he was, turnovers got in the right direction in a positive way, our penalty situation was much improved. To think that you would be 6-6, I’d say 'No.'"
Back during the summer, the primary concern for Georgia’s offense wasn’t the NCAA but a new starter at quarterback in Murray. He was pressed into duty when Zach Mettenberger was kicked off the team after spring practice and Logan Gray shifted full-time from quarterback to wide receiver.
Mike Bobo consoles Aaron Murray after UGA's overtime loss to Florida in late October.
After Mettenberger’s dismissal, Bobo sat down with Murray and told him, “It’s your show.”
“The main thing going into the season was we wanted to protect the football, reduce penalties and not give things away,” Bobo said. “We thought that was going to be our best way. We had a freshman quarterback, and if you’ve got a freshman, you don’t want to kill his confidence early. You don’t want him carrying it on his shoulders and then he has something bad happen to him that basically could ruin him for his whole career. So you wanted to take things slow with him.
“Maybe we should have opened it up a little more for him, but he wasn’t ready.”
Murray, who said Bobo’s past experience as a UGA quarterback was one reason he wanted to come play for him, shoulders some of the blame for early defeats.
“I’m a lot more mature quarterback now than I was at the beginning of the season,” Murray said. “If I could go back and play those games again, I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes as I did.”
Nonetheless, Murray’s 24 passing touchdowns are one shy of a school record. His 3,014 total yards are the second-most for any freshman in SEC history, helping overcome a rushing offense that finished 10th in the conference.
Murray’s passing efficiency rating of 162.73 is about to break the school record of 155.80 – which Bobo set as UGA’s quarterback in 1997.
“You’ve got to be careful how much you feed him,” Bobo said of Murray, “because he’s going to take everything and do it times 10. He’s that kind of kid. I’d like to sit here and take a lot of credit, but the guy is coachable, works extremely hard. Basically, I’ve just got to keep coaching him, because he wants to be coached and wants to learn.”
With Green back and Murray developing each week, Georgia won five of its final seven games, scoring 31 points in each of the two defeats (Florida and Auburn), games where the Bulldogs' defense allowed at least 450 yards to the opposition.
Four players -- Green, Kris Durham, Orson Charles and Tavarres King -- caught at least 20 passes this season for at least 400 yards.
Heading into a 13th game, Bobo laughs at the idea he was “vindicated” by the offense’s success in 2010.
“You can’t get caught up in all that, what people say,” he said. “The bottom-line, I don’t care if you win 17-14. You just want to win games. That’s when you feel good about everything. The thing I’m proud of is you’re 1-4 and your guys don’t quit on you offensively. They still believe in what you’re trying to coach and instill in them and still buying into the plan.
“When guys don’t believe and don’t buy into what you’re coaching, that’s when you can lose a football team. But these guys still believed in what we were doing offensively, kept taking coaching and we got better. That’s what I’m proud of for the season.”