Tue May 19 07:35pm EDT
Occasionally a commenter or emailer wants to know why I refer to BCS championship as the "mythical championship," since, like, it's "national championship" is right there on the field. The main reason is that the participants are voted in, but another is that there's no firm standard for the distinction; the bar changes every year, which, combined with the voting, can make the distribution of crystal balls over time seem almost cruelly arbitrary -- especially where bragging rights and reputations are involved. Take Mark Richt, for example, the most successful coach today without a BCS title.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Bill King spent a good amount of space Monday lamenting a recent ESPN poll that ranked Richt in a tie with Steve Spurrier as the fourth/fifth-best coach in the SEC, well behind Urban Meyer and Nick Saban and a good distance back of Les Miles -- only six percent ranked Richt (and Spurrier) No. 1, which is probably a good gauge of the wider opinion. But in tangible terms, as King notes, Richt should probably do much better than that, even after his most disappointing season to date. Georgia was 20 years removed from its last conference championship when Richt took over in 2001, and since has the highest overall winning percentage in the SEC over the last eight years; they're a half-game behind Florida for the best SEC record in the same span. The Bulldogs finished in the top-10 four years in a row from 2002-2005, the longest streak of the decade in the SEC and matching the Herschel Walker years from 1980-83 as the best run in school history. Richt has as many conference titles (two) as Meyer and Saban, and more than Miles (one). He's fifth among active head coaches in career winning percentage, behind (in order) Chris Petersen, Pete Carroll, Meyer and Bob Stoops, and well ahead of Spurrier, Saban, Miles, Mack Brown, Jim Tressel, et al.
He's among elite company by every measure except one -- all those coaches (with the exception of Petersen, who got Boise State as close as it will ever come with the undefeated season in 2006) have finished at the top of the polls:
And that, of course, is why Richt doesn’t get as much respect as you might expect from his won-loss record. He’s in a conference with coaches who have won three of the past six BCS titles, and he has none. It might not be fair, but until Richt brings one of those crystal footballs back to Athens, he’s always going to be considered not quite in the first rank of SEC coaches.
And therein is the lesson in just how ephemeral and flatly arbitrary those crystal balls can be. Richt's second team in 2002, as esteemed Dawg Kyle King is fond of pointing out, finished 13-1 and won the SEC championship; it watched undefeated Ohio State and Miami duke it out in the self-ordained title game finished third in the final polls. In 2003, LSU finished 13-1, won the SEC championship ... and won the national championship. In 2006, Florida finished 13-1, won the SEC championship ... and won the national championship. In 2007, LSU finished 12-2, won the SEC championship ... and won the national championship. Last year, Florida finished 13-1, won the SEC championship ... and won the national championship.
What's the difference between those heroic conquerors and Richt's best team in '02? The external circumstances broke in their favor, and they didn't for Georgia. So we can definitely affirm that he's not the luckiest coach. (This decade alone, the same argument applies for Butch Davis and Rick Neuheisel in 2000, when Miami and Washington were snubbed for a title shot in the Orange Bowl, and Tommy Tuberville in Auburn's 13-0 run in 2004. All three exclusions were basically arbitrary, and for Tubs, perhaps, eventually fatal.)
As I said not long ago, at the elite schools, there are coaches who have won championships and coaches who will win championships. Everyone in Richt's peer group this decade has a crystal ball to his name; based on his record, there's no reason (except maybe the presence of rising juggernaut Florida next door) to think Georgia won't join that club eventually. But he shouldn't have to when the record is perfectly capable of speaking for itself.