Man, was that sweet, or what? I'm going to put aside all questions of "why don't they look like this every game?" and "is it a net positive for Fulmer to keep his job?" for at least a post and gorge on some delicious, greasy, trans-fat-laden schadenfreude.
Former Georgia defensive end David Pollack went on TV during the game yesterday to remind us of how Georgia owned Tennessee while he was there at the beginning of this decade. His snotty commercial has inspired me to be a little more dickish about Tennessee's win than I might have been otherwise. I wish I had DVRed the game so I could rip the commercial and put it on YouTube. If I find it, I'll update this post with a link and/or embed. Consider this a love letter to him.
First, some background on the series and SEC pecking order
Throughout the 1990s, Florida was top dog in the SEC and Tennessee was close behind. The league moved to divisional play in 1992, and from 1992 to 1999 one of those two teams was SEC champion six of eight seasons (four for Florida, two for Tennessee). Alabama took the other two, beating (guess who) Florida both times. Tennessee's head-to-head record against Alabama during that time was 6-2, so I give the tiebreaker for second to Tennessee.
During that stretch, Tennessee dominated the Georgia Bulldogs, taking eight in a row from 1992 to 1999 by a combined score of 269-140 (a 1.92 scored-to-allowed ratio). Things were just as bad for the Red and Black against the Gators during the same stretch, with a 1-7 record by a combined score of 295-146 (an even worse 2.02 STA).
In other words, the 1990s were a bleak period for Bulldog fans. The program wasn't even a regional power, much less a national power.
In 2000, Georgia beat Tennessee for the first time since 1988. Al Wilson, Tee Martin and most of the 1998 national title team were gone, and Tennessee had freshman quarterbacks to break in. That Georgia coach Jim Donnan was fired after that season should tell you that Georgia boosters viewed the win the same way that Tennessee fans viewed it: as an aberration attributable to Tennessee being in a rebuilding year, not as a blueprint for greater things to come.
In 2001, however, Georgia under new coach Mark Richt left Neyland Stadium with a win that rearranged the pecking order in the SEC East. Tennessee's descension from the perennial number two spot in the division, and Georgia's ascension as a perennial contender for (and two-time winner of) the SEC title can both be traced back to this game — which ended with The Hobnail Boot. Georgia was a rising star registering on the national radar, Tennessee was soon to become an also-ran (despite eventually playing for the SEC title and almost earning a berth in the BCS championship game that year).
For the first half of the decade, Georgia enjoyed unprecedented dominance over Tennessee, posting a 5-1 record against the Vols from 2000-2005, winning by a combined score of 147-94 (a 1.56 STA). Georgia took every road game during that stretch, and took two out of three at home.
Before divisional play started, the two teams only met occasionally. Georgia put together a five-game streak in non-consecutive years (1909, 1910, 1922, 1923 and 1924) and a pair of four-game streaks (the aforementioned by Richt and a non-consecutive streak in 1973, 1980, 1981 and 1988). Including yesterday's game, the series stands at 20-15-2 all-time in favor of Tennessee. Tennessee has outscored Georgia 705-598 (1.18 STA). Tennessee's eight-game streak in the 1990s was the longest for either team.
Richt vs. Fulmer, and who really owns whom
Georgia's period of SEC dominance, the one Pollack was bragging about, began with Mark Richt's first season in 2001. So when discussing Georgia this decade it makes more sense to go back to 2001 rather than 2000 to discuss SEC East hierarchies and in particular the state of the series between Georgia and Tennessee. The 2000 Georgia win is generally agreed-upon to be an irrelevant outlier from a lame duck coach.
Richt's record against Tennessee from 2001 to 2005 was 4-1, taking every road game and one home game, winning 126-84 (for a 1.5 STA). The Bulldogs played for three SEC titles and won two during that stretch, and Tennessee played for two and didn't win any.
The question heading into yesterday's game was whether the 2006 game, which Tennessee won in Athens 51-33, was an aberration or the beginning of a pattern for the Georgia-Tennessee series.
Well, Georgia wasn't just outplayed yesterday. Mark Richt and his staff were out-coached by a Tennessee staff that many people (including me) said was stuck in the past. The combined score from the 2006 and 2007 games was 86-47 (1.83 STA ratio) in favor of Tennessee. That's either a pretty searing indictment of Georgia coordinators Willie Martinez and Mike Bobo or a compliment to Tennessee coordinators David Cutcliffe and John Chavis. Regardless, Georgia no longer appears to have the coaching advantage it had when Brian VanGorder was DC.
That brings the Richt vs. Fulmer series to 4-3 in favor of Richt. The overall 173-170 score, however, leaves Tennessee down by only a field goal over seven games. Tennessee has taken three of the last four by a score of 119 to 88 (a 1.35 STA ratio), snapped Richt's streak inside Neyland Stadium, and evened the series home record to a win for each coach.
Georgia is up a win overall, but the point I'd make to David Pollack is that Richt's dominance over Tennessee is over, and it never reached the heights that Tennessee's dominance over Georgia in the 1990s reached. Suck it.
The future, ah, the future
None of this means Tennessee will step in to fill the vacancy left by Georgia's decline. Despite two losses this season and the distinct possibility of missing out on the SEC title game, Florida still looks like the best team in the division and has the best long-term prospects. The Tennessee program has many problems of its own, and I'm still not convinced Fulmer should remain the coach after this season. But it does mean we are staring down a power vacuum in the SEC East.
It's entirely possible that Georgia could still take an upward trajectory over the next couple of years and reclaim that number two spot. But I have doubts about that happening as long as Willie Martinez is DC and if Mike Bobo doesn't show marked improvement from his first year to second year as OC for Georgia.
Tennessee... well, is somehow in control of its own destiny right now despite not looking very good in four of its first five games. Regardless of what I and a lot of other people think, Fulmer will have the rest of the season to demonstrate this win wasn't just a trademark save-his-ass game (sort of like how Jeff Blauser's batting average always seemed to jump up 40 points in a contract year).