SEC ‘What-ifs?’ No. 2: Would Mark Richt still be at Georgia if Mizzou never joined the SEC?
Welcome back to SEC “What-ifs?” Last week, we took a look at what might have happened if Feleipe Franks had stuck with his commitment to LSU instead of flipping to Florida. This week, we’ll take a look at the 2013 and 2014 SEC East seasons and how Mark Richt’s tenure at Georgia might have been remembered differently if the Missouri Tigers weren’t around to swipe those 2 SEC East titles from the Bulldogs.
First, I need to get this out of the way. Yes, I’m a Mizzou graduate. Therefore, this won’t be a “Missouri doesn’t belong in the SEC” rant. It’s a ridiculous argument and one that doesn’t make sense coming from a number of schools.
Here’s a list of SEC teams that haven’t won a division title as recently as Mizzou:
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
- Texas A&M
But this article is about Georgia and Mark Richt, who was dismissed following the 2015 season. He spent 15 years with the Bulldogs. Would he still be running things in Athens if Mizzou had never joined the SEC? There’s a compelling argument to be made that Richt could still be the Georgia head coach today if that were the case.
Let’s start with the 2013 season and then move on to 2014, which were both years that the Dawgs had talented squads.
The top of the SEC East in 2013 consisted of Mizzou, South Carolina and Georgia. Here’s how the conference standings looked:
- Mizzou: 7-1
- South Carolina: 6-2
- Georgia: 5-3
However, if Mizzou weren’t in the SEC, South Carolina would have lost that victory, making the Gamecocks 5-2 in SEC play. Georgia lost to Mizzou, so the Bulldogs would have also finished 5-2 in SEC action. And, since Georgia beat South Carolina, the Bulldogs, not the Gamecocks would have gone to Atlanta to face Auburn.
Of course, that’s assuming they stuck with 7 conference games, which they wouldn’t have done. So, if you look back at the rotation that was in place before Mizzou and Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012 and flesh that out, Georgia’s other SEC game would have been against Alabama. Yikes.
However, the Gamecocks would have had to go into Death Valley to play LSU. If we chalk both Georgia-Alabama and South Carolina-LSU up as losses for the SEC East teams, then Georgia still makes its way to Atlanta as East champion via the head-to-head win over the Gamecocks.
Mizzou lost the 2013 SEC Championship Game 59-42 to a high-powered Auburn offense led by RB Tre Mason, who had an incredible 304 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns.
So, that begs the question: Could the Dawgs have taken down Auburn?
Georgia had a slightly better run defense and overall defense than Mizzou that year. Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera both had more than 100 tackles and the Dawgs had a lethal pass-rushing combo in Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
Meanwhile, on offense, QB Aaron Murray — the SEC’s all-time leading passer — was at the height of his powers. Todd Gurley led the dynamic Georgia backfield and Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and others provided ample weapons in the receiving corps.
Perhaps the most-encouraging sign that the Bulldogs would have had a chance against Auburn is the fact that Georgia went to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 16 and only lost 43-38 to the Tigers.
Add in a more favorable crowd for Georgia in Atlanta, and it’s not too big of a stretch to see Richt, Murray and the Bulldogs hoisting the SEC Championship trophy that season. Obviously, the Bulldogs lost too many games earlier in the season to be contenders for the BCS title game, but beating Auburn would have given Richt his first SEC title since 2005.
As good as the 2013 Bulldogs were, the 2014 Georgia team was even better. Here’s how the SEC East standings looked at the end of the regular season:
- Mizzou: 7-1
- Georgia: 6-2
- Florida: 4-4
Without Mizzou in the conference, Georgia has 1 fewer SEC win in 2014, dropping the Bulldogs to 5-2. Mark Richt’s squad absolutely crushed the Tigers in Columbia 34-0. Florida, which beat Georgia in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, would have 1 fewer loss, as the Gators fell to Mizzou that season. Still, improving to 4-3 in SEC play has the Gators a game behind the Bulldogs.
Using the same projections as we did for the 2013 season, Georgia would have theoretically played LSU instead of Mizzou. That was a down year for Les Miles and his Tigers, as LSU finished 8-5 that season. It isn’t too far-fetched to think Georgia could have won that game, which would have clinched the East for the Bulldogs.
Florida, in this model, would have played Mississippi State as its other SEC West game. That year, Mississippi State had a quarterback named Dak Prescott and spent 4 weeks at No. 1 in the AP Poll. So, yeah, not the best year for the Gators to have caught Mississippi State on the schedule. If we put that as a loss for Florida, then Georgia still finishes 6-2 in the East and the Gators are still at 4-4.
Thus, Georgia once again advances to Atlanta, making it 4-straight SEC East championships. This time, the Dawgs would have met Alabama in the conference title game. Alabama boat-raced Mizzou 42-13 in the real 2014 SEC title game, but the Dawgs were set up to fare better against Nick Saban and the Tide.
Hutson Mason was Georgia’s quarterback that season. He was no Aaron Murray, but it’s easy to forget how efficient he was in 2014. Mason only threw for 2,168 yards, but he completed 67.9 percent of his passes and had a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
He didn’t need to do much because that year’s Georgia backfield was among its best in history. Nick Chubb led the way with 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Todd Gurley added 911 yards and 9 scores before tearing his ACL against Auburn. Then there was Sony Michel, who contributed 410 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Georgia finished with the No. 1 scoring offense in the SEC in 2014, averaging 41.3 points. Alabama was No. 2 with an average of 36.9 points per game. Mizzou, for comparison, had the SEC’s No. 12 scoring offense (27.8 points per game).
Georgia also had a slightly better scoring defense, allowing 20.7 points per game to 21.1 for Mizzou. Alabama allowed 18.4 points per contest.
Once again in 2014, Herrera and Wilson had more than 100 tackles. Jenkins and Floyd again wreaked havoc on quarterbacks, and Lorenzo Carter joined that mix as well. In the secondary, Quincy Mauger and Damian Swann each had 4 interceptions, while Dominick Sanders contributed 3.
That secondary would have potentially been better equipped to handle an Alabama receiving corps that included Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, O.J. Howard and others.
Much like the 2013 BCS title game, Georgia still wouldn’t have been a threat to make the first College Football Playoff in 2014 even with a win over the Crimson Tide. That can be blamed on 3 regular-season losses. Still, it would have given Richt more trophies to add to Georgia’s trophy case, and perhaps cooled off his hot seat significantly.
Would it have mattered?
Most people point to Georgia’s 38-10 loss to Alabama in Athens on Oct. 3, 2015, as the final straw for Richt. That 2015 Alabama team, of course, went on to win the national title, beating Clemson in the championship game.
Fan frustration was high at Georgia because it seemed Richt couldn’t get the Bulldogs over the hump against the other SEC powers. But would that frustration have been lower if the Bulldogs had entered the Alabama game having won the SEC East for 4 consecutive years?
It wouldn’t have changed some of the other inexplicable losses Richt’s teams suffered in 2013 and 2014, but winning 4 consecutive SEC titles certainly would have made the Georgia administration a little less inclined to part ways with Richt following the 2015 season.
Obviously, other things could have happened between 2015 and now. Richt might have still retired following the 2018 season (like he did at Miami). But it doesn’t seem too ridiculous to say that if Mizzou hadn’t been added to the SEC and won the East in 2013 and 2014, Kirby Smart might be coaching somewhere else today.
Smart led the Bulldogs to the 2017 SEC title. They went to the College Football Playoff Championship Game that year, too, before famously losing to Alabama. Would that have happened without Smart around?
Overall, 2014 was a crazy year in the SEC. The guys over at the SDS Podcast took a look back at that season last week. Check out the episode here.