Photo by Christine Troyke
ATLANTA -- Perhaps the silence backed up the statement.
In a room speckled in heavy doses of red and black, Kirk Herbstreit didn't even let the moderator John Saunders finish his question before he answered.
The college football coach under the most pressure next season?
"I think it's Richt," said Herbstreit, one of ESPN's top college football analysts and mainstay on the network's College GameDay Saturday preview show.
As in Georgia head coach Mark Richt.
No one shook their head. There were no groans of disapproval. No one clapped either.
"I would get a lot of grief from Georgia fans (last year) for defending him," Herbstreit said. "I think he came in and had so much success, so early that the fans forgot what Georgia was before he got there."
Tony Barnhart agreed.
"There is an opening here for Georgia because the SEC East is so down compared to the West," the CBS commentator followed before noting the two tough opening games against Boise State and South Carolina. "If they start 0-2 it's going to get ugly."
Herbstreit, Barnhart and Saunders were three of six nationally recognized college football analysts to speak in a roundtable luncheon hosted by the Atlanta Sports Council on Wednesday in Atlanta that focused most of its 60 minutes on national issues surrounding the sport. They were more than halfway into the event before talk of the pending season even began. And that started with Herbstreit pleading, "Can we talk about the games now?"
Joining Barnhart, Herbstreit and Saunders were ESPN's Lee Corso and Robert Smith and former Tennessee Volunteer and Fox Sports commentator Charles Davis. Saunders played the role he fills on the Sunday morning show The Sports Reporters, moderating and commenting on the discussion as all six sat in oversized leather chairs on a spotlit stage in a banquet hall at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel.
"It's almost been a disappointing summer in college football because of some of the issues we had to go through," Saunders said to open the program, noting the investigations surrounding many schools across the country, specifically Ohio State, Oregon and Auburn. Georgia Tech was never mentioned.
"I can't remember a time in college football with so much drama, so much negativity, off the field," said Herbstreit, the former Ohio State quarterback said. "My reaction to Ohio State was embarrassment."
Those comments kicked off a 30-minute discussion about the state of college football, focusing on money, recruiting, the new-look conferences. The panel members blamed themselves for some of the problems.
"We all get paid to do what we do," Smith said. "We fuel the fire."
And there is an appetite for them. This was the best-attended College Football Preview Luncheon in Atlanta.
The mood changed after the conversation turned from investigations and allegations to the coming season.
Along with Richt, others in the discussion included Clemson's Dabo Swinney, North Carolina's Butch Davis, UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and even Texas' Mack Brown as coaches under fire to win this season.
Corso brought up Davis' tenuous status, and just hours later, North Carolina fired the former Miami Hurricanes and Cleveland Browns head coach.
No one dared pick an SEC winner, but the consensus among the six was the SEC champion would play the winner of the Florida State-Oklahoma game in the BCS final. Alabama and LSU came up as the most likely to emerge from the five-time defending national champion conference.
"The Oklahoma-Florida State game is one of the biggest games the ACC has played in a decade," Barnhart said.