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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Four Keys to Georgia’s Season

Sophomore Branden Smith is one of four players key to Georgia's season.

Four keys to Georgia’s season, most of them obvious, all of them integral. The Bulldogs would need a confluence of positive factors to roll their way to overtake Florida in the SEC East. We know this. It’s probably not going to happen, unless Georgia lands Florida on an off week, steals the upset and takes the division via the head-to-head tiebreaker. For now, the Gators have fewer holes to fill. Instead, who are four players that need to step up in order for Georgia to improve upon last year’s eight-win finish?

Aaron Murray at quarterback

It’s far easier replacing Joe Cox than replacing Matthew Stafford. Cox can attest to the latter. So that’s what Murray has going for him, right from the start: Cox was underwhelming in his lone season under center. It is not too far a stretch — not a stretch at all, in my opinion — to say that Murray cannot offer Georgia any less production than it received from its quarterbacks in 2009. Does that make sense? He’s not Stafford, but at least he’s better than what Georgia had at the position a year ago. Expect a learning curve, expect some struggles, but expect development. He’ll have his hands full in SEC play, but with weapons at receiver — some guy named A.J. Green — Georgia’s best offensive line since 2007 and a one-two punch in the backfield, Murray will have every opportunity to succeed. He just needs to limit his mistakes, not to try to win games alone, and develop from week to week.

DeAngelo Tyson at nose tackle

I’ve written this line so many times when discussing the 3-4 defense that even if was originally false, I’ve convinced myself otherwise: Tyson, playing over the center, will control Georgia’s run defense. It’s true. Tyson plays on the nose. His job: occupy blockers. Notice the plural. Not just the center, who will give him an initial jolt, but guards blocking down, diagonally, doing their best to push Tyson out of the way before making their way to the linebackers. Now, if Tyson stands his ground, widens his stance, keeps those guards busy… his linebackers are free to make plays. Simple. Now all Tyson has to do is, well, do it. He’s a former five-star recruit, top 100 guy, offers from coast to coast, who opted to remain close to home. Now a junior, this is Tyson’s chance to shine. If he can’t do it, Georgia can turn to redshirt freshman Kwame Geathers or juniors Candler Cook and Justin Anderson into the rotation. Geathers and Anderson have better size than Tyson — Geathers only slightly so — with Anderson clocking in somewhere between 325 and 340 pounds, depending on lunch.

Justin Houston at outside linebacker

Houston was a rising star at end, the next in Georgia’s long, meaningful line of all-conference edge rushers. He led the team in tackles for loss (15) and sacks (7.5) a season ago. Now he’ll change things up, go from a three-point stance to standing up as one of the team’s two outside linebackers. It won’t be too much of a transition for Houston, though he’ll need to grow accustomed to his spot on the field. He’ll remain on the strong side, taking on blockers against the run. That’s not too much of a change. It will be easier for him to play on the strong side than on the weak side, as the latter would make his lack of prototypical linebacker speed a liability. He’ll be a solid presence against the run for the Bulldogs. Georgia will still ask Houston to get to the quarterback; in fact, he might find it an easier task getting to the passer in this new alignment. New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham hopes this is the case: outside of Houston and fellow outside linebacker Cornelius Washington, the Bulldogs don’t have much in the way of a pass rush. The onus will be in Houston to deliver.

Branden Smith at cornerback

Good news for Georgia: Branden Smith is academically eligible in 2010. For a while there it looked questionable. Hit the books, Branden: Georgia needs you. Smith played both sides of the ball last fall, rushing for 200 yards and a few scores while making 14 tackles and a pair of pass breakups on defense. He even chipped in on kickoff returns, though his cornerback mate, Brandon Boykin, has those duties tied up. What does Smith bring to the table? Superb athleticism. A nose for the game. Loads of potential. Most importantly, he’s a third option at a position that lacks optimal depth. Vance Cuff, a senior, and Boykin hold down the two starting spots, but it’s hard to imagine Smith not leapfrogging past Cuff and into a starting role at some point this season — if not prior to the season opener. Unfortunately, Smith missed a handful of practices while his eligibility was being investigated, so he’s slightly behind the starting pair. By November, expect to see Boykin and Smith starting at cornerback.

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