As inevitable as any preseason discussion is the lamentation of Georgia’s Mark Richt. Despite his decade-plus tenure on the sidelines in Athens, it seems that every new year brings new questions about Richt’s job security. The coming season should be no exception.
The perpetual malaise lingering over UGa. could finally dissipate in 2012, bringing to fruition conspiracy theorist nuts’ prediction the Mayan calendar’s completion is indicative of more than just Mayans getting bored with it and moving on. After all, what could be more conducive to the apocalypse than a happy Bulldog base? [This is where your Chicago Cubs jokes can be added.]
Aside from Florida’s runs in 2006 and 2008, the SEC West has dominated the conference’s, and thus the nation’s, football mountaintop. Anyone with a pulse who pays even the most minute bit of attention to the game will tell you that should continue in the coming season. National runner-up LSU went 13-0 before the BCS title game with a roster that was built to chase the title this year, not last. Defending national champion Alabama loses key contributors, but in typical Nick Saban fashion reloads. Arkansas is a dark horse to watch with quarterback Tyler Wilson and the return of Knile Davis, as well as home games vs. ‘Bama and LSU.
There will be no shortage of experts who have the Bulldogs slated as the conference’s fourth best team, if not fifth. Remember, UGa. dropped a home game to South Carolina last September. The Gamecocks host this go-around and boast a talented roster.
Georgia is as far-fetched a championship contender as you’re likely to see floated out of the SEC — unless you read someone suggesting Tennessee, Auburn or Florida, in which case you can assume the author has been drinking. And any pundit who floats Ole Miss has an obvious glue-sniffing problem.
So UGa. is the furthest limb one can go out on without a substance abuse issue, but its a stable enough one. Richt returns a bevy of talent, with arguably the conference’s best quarterback at the forefront. Aaron Murray is a two-year starter, and actually beat out likely LSU starter Zac Mettenberger for the job in 2010.
Murray threw 14 interceptions last season, a figure that jumps out as a bit high. But compared to 35 touchdowns, it comes out to a 5-to-2 score:turnover ratio, a healthy figure for a quarterback who passed 403 times. The issue he’ll need to have ironed out is accuracy. He was below 60 percent a season ago. If he can get that up to the mid-60s, he’ll emerge as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Essential to Murray’s development will be the ground game. The loss of Washaun Ealey lost spring set the Bulldogs back in that department, dumping a heavier load on true freshman Isaiah Crowell than he was perhaps ready for. Even still, Crowell went for 850 yards. If he can become more reliable with a season of college experience under his belt and surpass 1000 yards, the balance will make UGa dangerous.
Speaking of balance, third down-style back Carlton Thomas adds a speedy option out of the backfield. The similarly framed Brandon Harton came on late in the campaign, and showed high potential in his five appearances. The triumvirate’s collective production early in the season against lesser opponents could make or break what will be a very young offensive line, the most significant question mark on the roster. UGa. is youthful across its front five, but Richt told DawgNation.com he doesn’t see a drop-off in talent.
Should the defense produce as much as it’s capable of though, the development of the offense will feed off of it. And UGa. has some of the most talented defensive players in the country, starting with free safety Bacarri Rambo. Rambo was an All-American with eight interceptions and 55 tackles.
Fellow All-American Jarvis Jones is among the very best linebackers in the country. He had 70 tackles last season, 17.5 of which were for a loss. And of those, 13.5 were sacks. Jones is an absolute monster blitzing off the edge. His pass rush sets the Bulldog defensive trap in motion, and players like Rambo and strong safety Shawn Williams slam it shut.
Cornelius Washington joins Jones to create one of the nation’s most formidable linebacking corps. All told, UGa. held opponents to 20 points per game last season; 13 PPG in wins. Obviously, the Dawgs are at their best when the defense is at its best.
To put a nice bow on all this potential, UGa. again plays a favorable schedule. It travels to Missouri in its SEC opener, but could be facing a Tiger team without versatile quarterback James Franklin. The trip to Columbia is UGa’s only game away from Athens in September, building up to the Oct. 6 showdown with South Carolina that should determine the divisional champion.
Georgia also misses the heavyweights of the West: Arkansas, Alabama and LSU. That all adds up to a recipe for another title game appearance, and from there the Bulldogs just need to be better for one Saturday than their interdivisional counterpart. The talent is certainly there.
Such a run might finally alleviate the omnipresent kvetching about Richt.
Now, his seat is merely lukewarm and not tied to a barbecue spit as it was a year ago. He entered last season off a 6-7 finish, understandably a mark that inspired little confidence in the fan base. The 2011 season brought an SEC East division title and 10 wins, but both the way UGa. achieved its success as well as the campaign’s culmination underwhelmed.
The Bulldogs went 0-4 against Top 25 teams, bookending the season with losses to South Carolina (at home, as mentioned) and Boise State in a virtual home game. The SEC Championship loss to an LSU team that should be even stronger than it was a season ago was another in-state contest. The one that really set Bulldogs on edge though was the bowl game loss to Michigan State. Sparty was a top 10 team, and needed overtime to best the Bulldogs, but after the 2010 season’s dominance of the Big Ten, such a loss was a black eye.
UGa. also heads into spring football, beginning March 20 in Athens, with some action in the Fulmer Cup. There’s no lacking turmoil, but what championship road didn’t have some bumps?