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The Countdown

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

The Countdown

No. 26: Georgia

Georgia’s 24-month long tumble has roots in a 2008 season that found the Bulldogs atop both polls heading into September. On paper, 10-3 isn’t cause for concern; in reality, those 10 wins in 2008 were good but not nearly good enough, and when double-digit wins puts pressure on a head coach it’s safe to say that expectations have spiraled out of control. Some programs adapt to pressure, reveling in the hype and attention — the adulation and the vilification — afforded to those on center stage: U.S.C. did, and Alabama does. Some wilt, which is what Georgia has done while posting 12 losses over two seasons. Harsh? Yeah, there have been those extenuating circumstances, like injuries, attrition and misguided N.C.A.A. violations, but Georgia needs to show its mettle, now more than ever, as changes lie around the corner for a program that needs to plug in and recharge.

Conference
SEC, East

Location
Athens, Ga.

Nickname
Bulldogs

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 19

2010 record
(6-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 55

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Boise State (in Atlanta)
  • Sept. 10
    South Carolina
  • Sept. 17
    Coastal Carolina
  • Sept. 24
    at Mississippi
  • Oct. 1
    Mississippi St.
  • Oct. 8
    at Tennessee
  • Oct. 15
    at Vanderbilt
  • Oct. 29
    Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.)
  • Nov. 5
    New Mexico St.
  • Nov. 12
    Auburn
  • Nov. 19
    Kentucky
  • Nov. 26
    at Georgia Tech

Last year’s prediction

So, in my mind, the concerns surrounding this team aren’t survivable — the defense might not be up to Georgia’s past standards, but will be better. And that’s all fans should expect in 2010: be better. Don’t lose to Kentucky. Start fast — this is a distinct possibility, given the early schedule — and end strong. Give Florida all it can handle. Beat Georgia Tech. Show us, Mark Richt, that you’re still the answer. Georgia’s not winning an SEC championship, but it will prove itself capable of living up to its preseason expectations for the first time since 2007.

2010 recap

In a nutshell A season to roll up into a little ball, set on fire, divvy up into little pieces and then scatter across the globe. A year to forget, in short: Georgia’s worst season in 15 years, and one that puts Mark Richt on a seat hotter than the hottest day in the hottest Georgia summer. How did this happen? Can we blame the all-knowing N.C.A.A., which sidelined Georgia’s all-American receiver for the first four games of the season? Yeah, I’m fine with that. What about the growing pains associated with a new defensive scheme? Well, the defense wasn’t that bad, though it needs to be better. On paper, however, you saw a team that scored points and got stops defensively. Georgia added about four points per game offensively and held opponents to roughly four fewer points per game — and still dropped two wins off an already disappointing eight-win finish in 2009. So how did this team win only six games? There’s only one way to go, and that’s up. And about last season: forget about it, but don’t. I was wrong before, as Georgia needs to remember what 6-7 feels like; that feeling will be a repeat’s greatest deterrent.

High point The Bulldogs turned it on after starting 1-4, winning five of seven from Oct. 9 through the end of the regular season. The wins? Nothing all that impressive. But the Bulldogs did beat rival Georgia Tech, which was a nice way to end an otherwise unmemorable regular season.

Low point I don’t know. A loss to Colorado? That may have been the low point of Richt’s entire career in Athens, mind you. It was also the fourth of four straight losses that followed a win over Louisiana-Lafayette to open the year. You could also point to a game at Auburn where Georgia stormed out to a 21-7 first quarter lead but soon ran out of gas, eventually losing by 18 points. Or a 10-6 bowl loss to U.C.F., which is noteworthy for the fact that Georgia lost a bowl game to U.C.F., leaving more than few in tears.

Tidbit Only once under Mark Richt has Georgia not committed a single turnover in a game yet lost. It happened last November in Auburn, when the Bulldogs fared moderately well offensively, scoring 31 points, yet were not able to put the clamps down on the soon-to-be national champs. Prior to that game, Georgia had been a perfect 23-0 under Richt when not committing a turnover.

Tidbit (100-yard edition) Another statistical streak of a sort took a hit in 2010. Far more often than not, Georgia wins when featuring a 100-yard rusher on the ground. This was the case three times last fall: Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Georgia Tech. On Oct. 2, however, Georgia had a 100-yard back yet still lost to Colorado. So after last season’s 3-1 mark, the Bulldogs are 42-4 under Richt when at least one player rushes for 100 yards. Are you catching on? Force turnovers, run the ball well, win games. Georgia’s not alone in this regard.

Tidbit (G.A.T.A. edition) No, yesterday’s clue really had little to do with the Greek American Translators Association. The clue was an homage to the acronym G.A.T.A. — Get After Their Asses, as the great Erk Russell once told his defense. It’s unfortunate that Russell isn’t more popular on a national level, as he’s one of the real legends of this game. And these group of Bulldogs could learn a thing or two from the program’s former defensive coordinator: Get After Their Asses, hit, fight, scrap, just like a Junkyard Dawg.

Former players in the N.F.L.

45 CB Asher Allen (Minnesota), DT Geno Atkins (Cincinnati), CB Champ Bailey (Denver), OG Clint Boling (Cincinnati), FB Shaun Chapas (Dallas), DE Chris Clemons (Seattle), K Brandon Coutu (Seattle), LB Rennie Curran (Tennessee), OT Josh Davis (Chicago), LB Thomas Davis (Carolina), LB Akeem Dent (Atlanta), DE Demarcus Dobbs (San Francisco), WR Kris Durham (Seattle), LB Dannell Ellerbe (Baltimore), OT George Foster (New Orleans), LB Darryl Gamble (San Diego), DE Robert Geathers (Cincinnati), DT Kedric Golston (Washington), WR A.J. Green (Cincinnati), LB Justin Houston (Kansas City), DT Corvey Irvin (Carolina), OG Max Jean-Gilles (Cincinnati), CB Tim Jennings (Chicago), DE Charles Johnson (Carolina), S Reshad Jones (Miami), S Sean Jones (Tampa Bay), RB Kregg Lumpkin (Tampa Bay), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (Cleveland), TE Randy McMichael (San Diego), CB Prince Miller (Baltimore), RB Knowshon Moreno (Denver), S Paul Oliver (San Diego), TE Leonard Pope (Kansas City), OT Dennis Roland (Cincinnati), DE Richard Seymour (Oakland), QB Matthew Stafford (Detroit), OT Jonathan Stinchcomb (New Orleans), DE Kiante Tripp (Atlanta), C Fernando Velasco (Tennessee), WR Hines Ward (Pittsburgh), RB Danny Ware (New York Giants), TE Benjamin Watson (Cleveland), DT Kade Weston (New England), LB Will Witherspoon (Tennessee), DE Jarius Wynn (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Movies starring Burt Reynolds
1. “The Longest Yard,” 1974.
2. ”Deliverance,” 1972.
3. ”Smoky and the Bandit,” 1977.
4. “Boogie Nights,” 1997.
5. “Semi-Tough,” 1977.

Coaching

Mark Richt (Miami ’82), 96-34 over 10 seasons with the Bulldogs. The last two years haven’t been pretty, and we can even include 2008 among the ugliness if we consider that Georgia entered that fall ranked No. 1 in the country. It’s an unfortunate slide on many levels, including how the 12 losses over two years has detracted from the great work Richt has put in with the Bulldogs. From the start, Richt has had the Bulldogs among the top programs in the nation. After going 8-4 in 2001, his debut season, tying a Georgia record for wins by a rookie coach, Richt led the Bulldogs to a team-record 13 wins in 2002, a season that culminated in an SEC championship. Richt duplicated that feat in 2005, when he led Georgia to a 10-3 mark and its second conference title. There had been no real down point prior to last season for the Bulldogs since Richt took over, though one could point out the 9-4 mark in 2006 as a previous, brief lull for the Georgia program. You’re doing pretty well when a 9-4 record, with a .500 mark in the SEC, signals the lowest point of your tenure. However, the last two seasons have been concerning, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Hence Richt’s decision, heading into last season, to make major changes on his coaching staff. Only five SEC coaches have won 10 games or more in four straight seasons: Richt (2002-5), Bear Bryant (1971-74, 1977-80), Vince Dooley (1980-83), Phil Fulmer (1995-98) and Steve Spurrier (1993-98). How about that list? And while Georgia Tech has stolen some headlines from the Bulldogs since Paul Johnson’s arrival, Richt remains 9-1 against the program’s arch-rival; the Dawgs have held the Yellow Jackets to 17 points or fewer in seven of those nine victories. Prior to taking the Georgia head coaching job – his first – Richt spent 14 years as an assistant at Florida State, the last seven as offensive coordinator. Over that seven-year stint, the Seminoles went 76-9-1, winning the 1999 national title. In the nine years following his departure, F.S.U. went 74-42 with only a single 10-win season. Coincidence? Nope. This guy can coach, pure and simple.

Players to watch

Before moving onto Aaron Murray, who deserves plenty of space, it’s only fair to touch on Georgia’s rapidly deteriorating depth at running back; I think only two main contributors have left the program, though a third may be on his way out the door while I’m completing this sentence. The first was last year’s starter, Washaun Ealey, who paced the team in rushing and touchdowns. About a month ago, Caleb King followed suit: he finished second on the team in rushing, leading the way in yards per carry, so there’s a pretty open competition for the starting job. That’s as of today; by September, true freshman Isaiah Crowell will have a stranglehold on the top spot.

That’s the general consensus, at least. There’s a great chance, in my mind, that the starter against Boise State will not be Crowell but junior Richard Samuel, who was moved back to offense, where he began his career, after spending last season at linebacker. Carlton Thomas (272 yards, 2 scores) is another option, though he won’t be available for the season opener thanks to a violation of team rules. What Thomas has, and also Samuel, to a degree, is a firmer grasp on the offense than the ballyhooed freshman — the position and all that entails, not just running for daylight but the blocking schemes, always the toughest thing for a freshman back to learn. But Crowell’s the guy, believe me: he’s a five-star recruit, a star in the making, according to some, who arrives on campus as one of this premier program’s most hyped prospects in a generation. It’s probably safe to say he’s no Herschel Walker, just to get that blasphemy out of the way — though you’ll hear that correlation on TV this fall.

Back to Murray: he’s the best quarterback in the SEC. Yeah, the best. Stephen Garcia’s a veteran, but he’s no Murray; neither is Tyler Bray, at least not yet, and the same can be said of Tyler Wilson. I’m not sure if an SEC quarterback can match what Murray has already achieved, let alone the promise he brings to the table as a sophomore — he’s just a sophomore. Last fall, Murray put together one of the finest seasons by a quarterback in Georgia’s history: 209 of 342 for 3,049 yards and 24 scores; eight interceptions, only eight; another four scores on the ground; nearly solid, consistent play throughout, minus a complete meltdown against Florida and a sloppy showing in bowl play. He has the potential to be special.

And if you’re looking for a reason, a real reason, why Georgia is where they are on this list, it’s because I am very confident in Murray’s ability to lift this offense above its surrounding question marks. He did this to a degree as a redshirt freshman, overcoming lackluster line play, an inconsistent running game, the loss of an all-American receiver and continued questionable play-calling and decision-making along the sidelines. Murray needs a new top receiver and some help on the ground, but he’ll be even better as a sophomore. And the offense should be just as good, if not better than it was in 2010.

But the Bulldogs do have a void to fill at receiver. A.J. Green is impossible to replace; what Georgia needs to do is focus on replacing Kris Durham, a nice option but one whose shoes can be filled with relative ease by several rising prospects. In other words, don’t try to find the next Green but look for the next three of four steady receivers, boosting depth and Murray’s options as he spreads the ball around. He’ll have some nice targets at tight end in junior Orson Charles (26 catches for 422 yards) and senior Aron White. Charles is not only one of the SEC’s best tight ends but also one of the nation’s best — an all-American candidate heading into 2011.

The starting receivers will be Tavarres King (27 for 504) and Marlon Brown (11 for 133), two massively talented juniors with sizable upsides. There’s some experienced depth in junior Rantavious Wooten and senior Israel Troupe, but what the receiver corps has in spades is young, talented true and redshirt freshmen. The short list: Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley, among others. One or two will make an impact.

Georgia’s defense will be better in 2011, if only thanks to the year of experience in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 system. Yeah, last year’s group wasn’t terrible, but the Bulldogs were sieve-like against the run, which had a domino effect throughout the defense. So step one: beef up against the run. Problem solved… probably. Georgia inked mammoth JUCO transfer John Jenkins as the cure-all for this plus-sized issue, hoping he can lend the line its much-needed anchor on the nose. If Jenkins can get himself into proper conditioning, there’s no doubting the impact he can have on this defense.

Let’s go off the belief that Jenkins will learn the defense and prove himself capable of playing major snaps. If that does occur, Georgia can team the JUCO addition with sophomore Kwame Geathers, one of the team’s most improved players during the spring, to give the Bulldogs a major presence in the middle of the line. If this comes to pass, we could see a major improvement from the defense as a whole. We’re in wait-and-see mode, but it’s something worth keeping an eye on.

The line returns both starting ends in senior DeAngelo Tyson (36 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and junior Abry Jones (34 tackles, 3.5 for loss), two similarly large linemen well-suited for this 3-4 look. I am a very firm believer that it all starts up front, and I’m far from alone in this regard. I also think that size is key, and Georgia’s top four linemen — Jones, Tyson, Jenkins and Geathers — tip the scales at a combined 1,250 pounds, give or take a meal. That’s the sort of size that can change the complexion of an entire defense.

The line may need to hold down the fort while Georgia breaks in three new full-time starters at linebacker. The lone returning starter is junior inside linebacker Christian Robinson (46 tackles, 6 for loss), who will take on a leadership role for a defense sorely tacking in this quantity a season ago. He’ll be joined inside by sophomore Alec Ogletree (34 tackles), who moves down to linebacker after an impressive freshman campaign at safety. The starters at outside linebacker are pretty much set in stone: sophomores Cornelius Washington and Jarvis Jones will flank Ogletree and Robinson to start the year.

It’s vital that Georgia find a replacement for all-SEC rush linebacker Justin Houston, and the hope is that Jones, a former U.S.C. transfer, has the athletic ability to make plays in the backfield. Look for five-star addition Ray Drew to at least play a role on passing downs as a true freshman. There’s a tremendous amount of potential with this group, not to mention the front seven at large. Georgia could — could — have one of the SEC’s best fronts if everything comes together. That would mean the line stands taller against the run and the young linebacker corps plays up to its ability. That’s doable.

The secondary remains largely intact. There’s no bigger returning piece than senior cornerback Brandon Boykin (44 tackles, 3 interceptions). Boykin opted to return for his final season, giving the senior a run for national recognition and Georgia a top-flight, reliable cornerback. What Boykin’s return does, in overly simply terms, is allow Georgia to take more chances with the blitz; Grantham can feel secure leaving him alone, one-on-one, which can’t be overstated. The Bulldogs also return junior Sanders Commings (36 tackles, 3 interceptions) and versatile junior Branden Smith, last year’s nickel back.

Three players with starting experience return at safety. One is junior free safety Bacarri Rambo, the team’s leading returning tackler (82, 3 interceptions). Rambo has the athletic ability to do more, however, and will find a place on the all-conference team should he play with more consistency. Fellow junior Shawn Williams takes over at strong safety after making three starts last fall, and additional depth comes from senior Jakar Hamilton, a five-game starter in 2010, and redshirt freshman Marc Deas.

Georgia’s special teams are superb. Boykin is one of the SEC’s best on kickoff returns; the same could be said of Smith on punt returns. Senior Blair Walsh is one of the nation’s best: he hit on 20 of 23 attempts last fall, including 2-2 from 50 yards or more. Senior punter Drew Butler won the Ray Guy Award in 2009 and was a finalist last fall, so we know what he can do. Good teams excel on special teams. Georgia might have the best special teams in the country.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line It doesn’t matter how good Murray is, though he’s really good. And it doesn’t matter how good Crowell can be, though it seems like he can be really good. If the offensive line doesn’t improve Georgia won’t improve, pure and simple, and first-year line coach Will Friend, formerly of U.A.B., has a whale of a task ahead of him as the Bulldogs look to break in a handful of new starters thanks to injuries, attrition and graduation. The first: would-be starter Trinton Sturdivant will miss yet another season due to knee injuries, a devastating blow to a lineman who was once considered to have all-American potential. The second: A.J, Harmon and Bruce Benedict left the program in the spring and June, respectively, robbing the Bulldogs of a potential starter and a would-be reserve. The third: Clint Boling took his four years of starting experience to the next level, so Georgia must replace his large shoes and those of right tackle Josh Davis. That leaves the two stalwarts, left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones, along with several relatively untested would-be starters. Glenn moves out to tackle after spending the last two seasons at guard; transitioning him out to the blind side was a no-brainer, and sets Glenn up for heavy award consideration. Likewise, Jones is a national award candidate. Senior Justin Anderson returns to the offensive side of the ball — he’ll start at right tackle — after spending last year on defense. What about the two guards? It’ll be a pair of sophomores, Kenarious Gates and Chris Burnette, on the left and right side, respectively. So there’s your starting five. Depth? None of the proven variety. It’s not comforting in the least to see the youth along the second tier of the depth chart: left tackle Hugh Williams is a redshirt freshman, and a very undersized one at that; Austin Long, Ben Reynolds and Dallas Lee are sophomores; and reserve left guard Kolton Houston, like Williams, is a redshirt freshman. What about the incoming crop of true freshmen? There are five pretty well-regarded recruits coming in, but I hope Georgia can redshirt them all. It’s not a great situation, though the hope is that the Bulldogs remain healthy. If they do, perhaps the line can take a step forward.

Game(s) to watch

Boise State might be Georgia’s biggest game in years. It’s huge, if only because of what a win would mean for this team, this program and its head coach. Imagine if the Bulldogs knock off the Broncos and South Carolina to open the year? It would easily push Georgia into the top eight or nine in the country, I’d think. The Bulldogs would be top five on my weekly list, that’s for sure. From there, Georgia has marquee games with Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Georgia’s primed for a bounce-back year, complete with a run towards 10 wins and a shot at the SEC East division. There’s no reason why the Bulldogs can’t even make noise on the national stage; there’s just one caveat: we’ve said the same of Georgia over the last two years only to be disappointed, so I think the safest bet is to sit back and wait for signs of life from a program once full of vim and vigor, now desperately searching for a spark. To keep that metaphor going, Georgia’s sitting on a bed of coals — the talent, the hunger, the schedule — and needs only someone, or something, to light the match. I think the Bulldogs will find a spark from a new-look defensive front, which could be very good, and a secondary that ranks among the top half of the SEC. So what’s holding Georgia back? There are question to address. Will Jenkins and Geathers provide the push the line needs on the nose? Can the youngsters at linebacker play up to their potential? What about the new receiver corps? Crowell at running back? Most of all, what about a thin and untested offensive line? Those are the sort of questions that prevent Georgia from being a real national contender, and those are the sort of issues that have many discounting the Bulldogs heading into 2011. I can’t necessarily disagree with those question this team’s resume at these crucial spots, but I do think they’re a bit overblown. This team looks much better than it was a year ago: there are question marks to address, but I feel like I may one day regret placing the Bulldogs here, not among the top 20 teams in the country.

Dream season The Bulldogs bounce back in a major way, topping Boise State in the season opener and never looking back: 12-0 in the regular season, heading into the SEC title game date with a national championship game appearance on the line.

Nightmare season For the second year in a row, Georgia ends the regular season 6-6. This is it for Richt.

In case you were wondering

Where do Georgia fans congregate? A number of options for the discerning Georgia fan. For message board chatter, check out Dawg RunDawg RantDawg Post and UGASports.com. For those interested in some Georgia blogs, check out Get the PictureGeorgia Sports BlogBulldogs Blog and Leather Helmet Blog.

Word Count

Through 95 teams 293,323.

Up Next

Who is No. 25? Tomorrow’s program shares its nickname with two other F.B.S. programs. Of that trio, tomorrow’s program is the only one to have not won at least 10 games three or more times since 2000.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    Oklahoma State Cowboys are up next.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Whoops, misread the clue…it’s the mascot/nickname. It’s the Houston Cougars up next.

  3. Alex Payne says:

    Class of CUSA coming up next.

  4. DaUUU!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    I have a funny feeling that the (insert random SEC team) is going to run the table and win the national championship. It’s just what those SEC schools be doing nowadays.

  5. [...] Paul Myerberg starts out with a photo of Erk (“It’s unfortunate that Russell isn’t more popular on a national level, as he’s one of the real legends of this game.”) and goes up from there. [...]

  6. pooldawg04 says:

    Great article, needs a minor correction though. The punter is Drew Butler not Ray Butler.

    Paul: Had Ray Guy on the brain. Fixed above, thanks.

  7. Ken M says:

    It’s UH. Hard to believe with the current state of WSU they have actually had 3+ 10 win seasons in the past decade.

  8. BobJ says:

    Of all the Dream Season forecasts to date, this one is the most likely. Georgia aside, I can’t think of any Top-10 team this fall that would have much difficulty going 12-0 with this schedule.

  9. M Meyer says:

    I must say Baccari Rambo is the best player name we’ve seen in the team previews so far.

  10. Uberd says:

    do you think a true freshman can handle blitz p/u on 3rd down against sec de’s/linebackers.? crowell may be good, but he’s not going to be m.lattimore. putting the life of your all sec qb & your offense in the hands of a true freshman is quite a risk for richt. i’d look for several “12″ personnel sets with 2 te’s the first few games to keep murray alive.

  11. Dontel says:

    Meh. Aaron Murray aside, the Dawgs do not have enough proven weapons on offense to make alot of noise in the SEC this year. “Potential” seems to be the theme with your assessment of them. They do have the easiest schedule among the SEC East contenders (Carolina and Florida), but it still doesnt equate to winning the East. South Carolina is the team to beat in the East with their proven weapons on offense and arguably the best defensive line in the SEC.

  12. Ryan says:

    I like how our schedule is considered easy even though we start off with back to back top 15 teams. Thats life in the SEC
    Go Dawgs!

  13. JW says:

    Great article. You captured the current state of Georgia football perfectly when you wrote that there is only one reason why we shouldn’t expect Georgia to contend for and SEC championship and more — the fact that many have said the same thing about Georgia the past three years.
    I expect the Dawgs to go 1-1 to start the season. But make no mistake, if they open 2-0, Georgia would be a favorite in each of the following 10 games, and could easily finish 12-0.
    Most prognosticators have focused on the offense, but you are correct to point to the defense first. Georgia’s season hinges on Grantham’s second year defense.

  14. michael says:

    I admit to not being as familiar with UGA going into this season as other teams, and hadn’t looked at their schedule. The schedule as much as anything else makes them contenders – they miss LSU, Alabama, and get South Carolina and Mississippi State at home! That kind of thing makes Utah’s schedule imbalance look quaint. It’s the kind of thing that turns a losing season into a double-digit win season.

  15. schedule nit says:

    Paul, I completely agree you will regret ranking Georgia here. Way too high.

    Let’s see if Murray survives the first two games against two of the country’s best defensive lines before cooing about how their schedule will lift them to the SEC title.

  16. gtwrek says:

    Why do all fans of SEC schools live vicariously through their conference instead of just rooting for their team. It’s a really, really weak-minded mentality.

  17. Paul says:

    I would like Georgia’s chances better if Erk Russell were still coaching for them.

    Genius coach.

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