No. 6: Georgia
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 28, 2012
If football games were 15 minutes long, Georgia would have been the best team in the country. If football games were 30 minutes long, Georgia would have worn the SEC crown for the first time since 2005. The Bulldogs allowed only 27 points in the first quarter all season: Boise State, Florida and Auburn scored one touchdown apiece; Mississippi State and Kentucky added a field goal; and the rest, the other nine teams, were held scoreless. In the first half of games, Georgia outscored its 14 opponents by a score of 275-111. Against Auburn on Nov. 12, the Bulldogs put together the program’s most dominating first half of SEC play since… when? But it was a different story in the second half, with this fact illustrated no better than in the two biggest games of Georgia’s season. In the opener, Boise State left Georgia in the dust with back-to-back touchdowns to open the second half. In the SEC title game, Georgia’s 10-0 second-quarter lead was followed by 42 unanswered L.S.U. points, 35 of which came over the game’s final 30 minutes. Georgia has already proved it can play with anyone for 30 minutes. But to be the best in the SEC, the Bulldogs need to round into 60-minute form.
15 (6 offense, 9 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
at South Carolina
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
vs. Florida (in Jacksonville)
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
Georgia’s primed for a bounce-back year, complete with a run towards 10 wins and a shot at the SEC East division. 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, and these issues that have many discounting the Bulldogs heading into 2011. 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.
In a nutshell Georgia’s demise was, in fact, greatly exaggerated. Obituaries penned for Mark Richt and the Bulldogs in mid-September went unpublished, instead stored back away for use at a later date — the next time Georgia loses a big game, for instance. The Bulldogs opened 0-2, losing to Boise and U.S.C., and closed 0-2, losing to L.S.U. and Michigan State. In between, they won 10 straight games. It was the program’s first 10-win season since 2008, and did much to erase the sort of negativity that had inhabited the program since those Bulldogs, four years ago, opened as a national title favorite but limped through three painful losses. Last year’s team improved nearly across the board after a sub-.500 2010 season, with the greatest strides seen on defense, where Georgia finished in the top 25 nationally in scoring for the first time since 2007.
High point A 45-7 win over Auburn on Nov. 12. A rocking and rollicking Sanford Stadium reached a fever pitch in the second quarter, when Bacarri Rambo intercepted Barrett Trotter, ducked to his left, returned to his right and ran through most of Auburn’s offense before leaping into the end zone to give Georgia a 28-7 lead. It’s the one play I’ll always remember from the 2011 season.
Low point Any one of the four losses, with special emphasis placed on the final 36 minutes against L.S.U. in the SEC title game. Maybe Georgia keeps it closer if Tyrann Mathieu doesn’t score on that game-changing punt return in the second quarter. Maybe. But probably not.
Tidbit Each of Georgia’s four non-conference opponents come to Athens, which is a good thing. Why? Under Richt, the Bulldogs are 30-1 at home against teams outside of the SEC, losing only to Georgia Tech in 2008. Overall, the Bulldogs are 37-4 during non-conference play since 2001, with one loss in each of the last four seasons.
Tidbit (win streaks edition) Georgia’s 10-game regular season winning streak is the second-longest active streak in the nation, trailing L.S.U., which has won 13 straight. Next comes Arkansas State, which won nine straight to cap last year’s regular season, followed by Northern Illinois, T.C.U. and Virginia Tech, with seven straight regular season wins.
Tidbit (interceptions edition) Georgia is 15-3 when intercepting two or more passes since the start of the 2007 season – with two of those losses coming a season ago. If you remove bowl play, the Bulldogs are 15-1 when making two or more picks over the last five years; two of those losses came to Michigan State in last season’s Outback Bowl and to U.C.F. in the 2010 Liberty Bowl.
Former players in the N.F.L.
49 OG Justin Anderson (Indianapolis), DT Geno Atkins (Cincinnati), CB Champ Bailey (Denver), OG Clint Boling (Cincinnati), CB Brandon Boykin (Philadelphia), P Drew Butler (Pittsburgh), FB Shaun Chapas (Dallas), TE Orson Charles (Cincinnati), DE Chris Clemons (Seattle), LB Rennie Curran (Tampa Bay), LB Thomas Davis (Carolina), LB Akeem Dent (Atlanta), DT Demarcus Cobbs (San Francisco), WR Kris Durham (Seattle), LB Dannell Ellerbe (Baltimore), TE Bruce Figgins (Baltimore), OT George Foster (Indianapolis), LB Darryl Gamble (San Diego), DE Robert Geathers (Cincinnati), OG Cordy Glenn (Buffalo), DE Kendric Golston (Washington), WR A.J. Green (Cincinnati), LB Justin Houston (Kansas City), DT Corvey Irvin (Jacksonville), CB Tim Jennings (Chicago), DE Charles Johnson (Carolina), S Sean Jones (Detroit), S Reshad Jones (Miami), C Ben Jones (Houston), K John Kasay (New Orleans), RB Kregg Lumpkin (Seattle), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (Cleveland), TE Randy McMichael (San Diego), CB Prince Miller (Buffalo), RB Knowshon Moreno (Denver), TE Leonard Pope (Pittsburgh), OT Dennis Roland (Cincinnati), DE Richard Seymour (Oakland), QB Matthew Stafford (Detroit), DT Kiante Tripp (Cleveland), DE DeAngelo Tyson (Baltimore), OG Fernando Velasco (Tennessee), K Blair Walsh (Minnesota), RB D.J. Ware (New York Giants), TE Benjamin Watson (Cleveland), DT Kade Weston (Pittsburgh), TE Aron White (Atlanta), LB Will Witherspoon (Tennessee), DE Jarius Wynn (Green Bay).
Arbitrary top five list
Coaches with undergraduate degree from SEC school
1. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (Florida).
2. Mike Riley, Oregon State (Alabama).
3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson (Alabama).
4. David Cutcliffe, Duke (Alabama).
5. Will Muschamp, Florida (Georgia).
Mark Richt (Miami ’82), 106-38 over 11 seasons with the Bulldogs. After two ugly years – three if you consider 2008, when Georgia entered the year ranked No. 1 but lost three games – Richt led the Bulldogs back to the top of the SEC East a year ago. Georgia’s return to the upper crust of the SEC put some of the bloom back on Richt’s rose; for a few months, we were all reminded of the great work he’s done over his decade-plus at the forefront of this program. From the start, Richt 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 2010 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. 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 stole a few headlines from the Bulldogs in the early days following Paul Johnson’s arrival, Richt remains 10-1 against the program’s arch-rival; the Bullodogs have held the Yellow Jackets to 17 points or less in eight of those 10 victories. Prior to taking the Georgia job – his first head coach position – 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
Aaron Murray isn’t quick – he’s just quick enough. And no, he’s not big – he’s just big enough. The junior’s size, speed and stature don’t pop out; his production, on the other hand, has placed Murray in a very select group of players at his position heading into September. It’s a short list: Murray, Barkley, Jones, Smith, Wilson… these are your best pass-first quarterbacks in college football. If this comes as a surprise, well, you haven’t been watching Murray grow at the center of this offense over the last two seasons. The key word there, grow, doesn’t tell the whole story. Murray’s also become more comfortable not just in the pocket but also as a leader, and the offense’s unquestioned leader at that. And with expectations high for this team – and with new faces in the backfield and up front – Georgia needs Murray’s leadership more than ever.
And he’ll lead by example. In some ways, Murray’s sophomore season marked a slight step back from his redshirt freshman campaign: a higher interception rate, fewer yards per attempt and a lower completion percentage, for example. Murray continued to struggle against Florida, was picked apart by L.S.U., had a sour showing against Mississippi State, though the Bulldogs came out on top. It wasn’t a perfect season, in other words. But it’s no coincidence that Murray was at his best when Georgia ran the ball effectively, as against Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia Tech – while Murray can carry this offense, it’s obvious that the Bulldogs’ offense, like many others, runs at full tilt when exhibiting prototypical balance.
I think that Murray’s ready to make a run for the Heisman. Part of this fact has to do with the expectations surrounding this team: Georgia has the talent, the coaching and the schedule to make a run towards a national title, and no one figure is due to gain more acclaim over the course of this coming season than the Bulldogs’ quarterback, of course. In addition, Murray’s entering the time when all quarterbacks flip the switch – he’s heading into his third full season as the starter, and the game will slow down like never before. Add that to the idea that Murray’s been no slouch thus far, to put it lightly, and you’re looking at one of my five leading Heisman contenders heading into September. What sort of numbers should you expect? Not too much of a leap in total yardage, perhaps up to 3,300 yards, but a nice climb in completion percentage and an even stronger touchdown-to-interception ratio. Heisman numbers, in short.
But Murray will need to be balanced out with a running game, as noted. The Bulldogs will no longer have would-be sophomore Isaiah Crowell, who left the program over the summer, but the program welcomes in another pair of touted freshmen backs in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Both have impressed thus far, especially Gurley, and both will eventually take on a substantial role in this offense once they grasp the details, like protection, which takes time. For now, Georgia will head into the season opener with sophomore Ken Malcome (174 yards) as the starter, with Gurley and Marshall nipping at his heels.
The Bulldogs also return senior Richard Samuel (240 yards), who will see time at both tailback and fullback – though he’s running second at the latter, behind former walk-on Merritt Hall. One thing that’s immediately noticeable when looking at Georgia’s backfield is its size: every back on the two-deep, including the two rookies, is at least 216 pounds. The move towards bigger, stronger backs has been developing over the last two or three years, with each new back on the larger end, which will help the Bulldogs churn out tougher yards between the tackles against elite SEC front fours. That Marshall and Gurley are bigger might chew into Samuel’s touches as Georgia’s short-yardage back, though both of the freshmen still have much to prove come conference play.
There’s enough depth at wide receiver for Georgia to have moved sophomore Malcolm Mitchell over to cornerback, as I’ll touch on below. What the Bulldogs need is a touch more consistency, however, and not just from its receiver corps – while I praised Murray, it’s safe to say that he needs to do a better job driving the ball downfield. He’ll have weapons to work with, starting with seniors Tavarres King (46 receptions for 677 yards) and Marlon Brown (15 for 234), the Bulldogs’ two starters. King wants to carry his strong bowl game over to September; Brown wants to turn his torrid offseason – he was great in the spring and during fall camp – into a breakthrough final season.
The Bulldogs also return junior Rantavious Wooten, who missed all but three games of last season due to injury, and sophomores Michael Bennett (32 for 32) and Chris Conley (16 for 288), creating one of the SEC’s top two rotations at the position – if Texas A&M has the best, the Bulldogs aren’t far behind. And Mitchell could eventually move back over to offense once a few of Georgia’s defenders return from suspension, giving this passing game yet another weapon. One thing I’d like to see from the Bulldogs is a greater presence from the backfield, especially with Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome stepping in at tight end for Orson Charles and Aron White. That’ll help Georgia convert in the intermediate game, though I do think that Lynch and Rome have the size and athleticism to create mismatches over the middle of the field and in the red zone.
Last year’s defense was Georgia’s best since 2007, which might explain why last year’s team was the program’s best since that same year. As expected, the Bulldogs played with far greater aggressiveness in their second season under Todd Grantham, largely due to the fact that the defense as a whole was more comfortable lining up in his 3-4 base set. When did the light turn on? While the Bulldogs had their moments in 2010 and in the early stages of last fall, the defense as a whole seemed to gel around Grantham’s red-faced tirade against the Vanderbilt coaching staff – James Franklin in particular – in the seconds following Georgia’s win over the Commodores in October. From that point forward, Georgia held its final four conference opponents to only 205.8 yards per game.
The light will stay on in 2012, only at a brighter wattage. Before getting to the personnel, some housecleaning: Georgia will be without senior cornerback Sanders Commings (55 tackles) for the first two games and junior inside linebacker Alec Ogletree (52 tackles, 7.5 for loss) and all-American free safety Bacarri Rambo (55 tackles, 8 interceptions) for an as-yet undetermined amount of time – while Commings’ suspension is official, Richt has yet to announce the breadth of time of Rambo and Ogletree will miss for committing a violation of team rules in late March. While Commings is off of the two-deep, Rambo and Ogletree are listed in their starting roles; that should change, as both have long been rumored to be sidelined for at least the first two games of this coming season.
Moving Mitchell over from receiver, where he looked like a future star, will help Georgia survive at cornerback while Commings collects cobwebs. For at least the first two games, the Bulldogs’ starting cornerbacks will be Mitchell and senior Branden Smith (24 tackles, 2 interceptions), with Smith another defender who was rumored to be facing an early-season suspension – but in the case of Smith, unlike with Commings, Georgia ruled that a suspension would have been unwarranted. Sophomore Damian Swann, a major recruit heading into last season, will serve as Georgia’s third cornerback. So what does Grantham do when Commings returns? I think it depends heavily on Swann, not Mitchell; if Swann can be the team’s third cornerback, perhaps Georgia would feel comfortable moving Mitchell back over to offense.
Senior Shawn Williams (72 tackles, 4 interceptions), the most overlooked cog on this defense, returns for another season at strong safety. When Rambo returns – going off of the idea that he’ll miss a game or two – Georgia’s safety pairing will be one of the best in the county. In the meantime, the defense will likely turn to sophomore Connor Norman, a former walk-on who has grasped the backup spot at free safety heading into the opener. Of the new arrivals, I’m most excited to see how Grantham and this staff will use Josh Harvey-Clemons, a five-star prospect who will start at strong safety but might eventually grow into a role at outside linebacker.
Speaking of linebacker: With the core of Alabama’s group gone, Georgia now has the best stable of linebackers in the SEC – and, along with Michigan State, the best linebacker corps in the country. It’s a group paced by junior Jarvis Jones (70 tackles, 19.5 for loss, 13.0 sacks), the former U.S.C. transfer who grasped all-American honors in his first full season in Athens. Jones isn’t impossible to block – it just takes two or more linemen, which in turn impacts the entire tenor of Georgia’s front seven.
He’s joined at outside linebacker by sophomore Ramik Wilson, who will hopefully lend greater stability to a position that saw several players see starting time a year ago. Inside, the Bulldogs will eventually start Ogletree and senior Michael Gilliard (65 tackles, 7.0 for loss); for now, however, look for senior Christian Robinson (47 tackles) to take Ogletree’s spot in the starting lineup. Again, only Michigan State can make a case for having a better linebacker corps.
Wilson’s spot at outside linebacker became available once Georgia moved senior Cornelius Washington (17 tackles, 5.0 sacks) into a full-time role at end. If the move is surprising in any way – which it really isn’t – it’s because Washington, at 268 pounds, is smaller than your traditional 3-4 end. What Washington lacks in size he makes up for with an ability to bring pressure off the edge, however, and if Georgia wants to get big, Grantham has several options at his disposal. One is sophomore Ray Drew, a hyped recruit who had a few moments during his rookie season – including a very nice game in the win over Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs also have junior Garrison Smith (22 tackles) in a reserve role, as well as redshirt freshman Sterling Bailey, who might have played last fall had he not suffered a shoulder injury over the summer.
There’s big, bigger and biggest, and both senior John Jenkins (28 tackles, 6.0 for loss) and junior Kwame Geathers fit into the latter category – snugly, because they’re pretty big. That’s your pairing at nose tackle, with one replacing the other, with Jenkins the starter, throughout the course of 60 minutes. Along with Jones, Jenkins was last year’s difference-making addition: he gave this 3-4 look the space-assuming nose tackle it needed. With senior Abry Jones (48 tackles, 4.0 sacks) at end, Grantham and the Bulldogs have every piece you’d need to effectively run the 3-4 look. In all, Georgia’s defense ranks just a shade behind those in place at L.S.U. and Alabama for the best in the SEC – and keep in mind that both of those groups have personnel issues to address at linebacker; the Bulldogs, outside of the early suspensions, are locked in.
The kicking game is a bit of a concern, seeing that Georgia must replace Blair Walsh and Drew Butler, but keep this in mind: despite having that pair in place, last year’s kicking game was dreadfully disappointing. So how much worse could Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber be, even if both are true freshmen? That’s doubly true with Morgan, who steps in for Walsh; the latter made only 21 of 35 tries as a senior. But based on the changes, and due to the fact that both are so inexperienced, it’s only fair to be a little worried about Georgia’s kicking game. Smith and Mitchell will help the Bulldogs replace Brandon Boykin, with Smith handling punt returns and both sharing the job on kickoffs.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line While the line remains the team’s biggest question mark heading into the season opener, the Bulldogs’ front has one major asset in its corner: Murray. While conventional logic dictates otherwise – that the line impacts Murray, and not vice versa – having a seasoned, multiple-year starter under center will help this line as it looks to replace three starters off of last year’s group. Why might that be? Because Murray knows defenses, especially SEC defenses, and he can help the new-look line both during the week, as Georgia prepares for Saturday’s game, and during the game itself, especially when it comes to identifying pre-snap shuffles and potential trouble spots. In this case, the relationship works both ways: Murray needs help from the line, but he’ll help this line round into form before the Bulldogs take on South Carolina’s ferocious pass rush in early October.
The biggest key for this line is tackle play, as you might expect. On the left side, Georgia moved junior Kenarious Gates over from left guard, where he made nine starts a year ago. On the strong side, the Bulldogs are going with a true freshman, John Theus, who has thus far – and they’ve yet to play a game, remember – lived up to his expectations as a five-star recruit. Eventually, Theus will move over to the blind side; like other vaunted tackle prospects before him, Theus will get his feet wet at right tackle. The only change inside is at center, where sophomore David Andrews takes over for Ben Jones, a four-year starter. At guard, Georgia brings back junior Dallas Lee on the left side – Lee shuffled between both spots last fall – and junior Chris Burnette on the right.
This is a group that will get better with every passing week. But Georgia cannot afford any injuries, especially with depth a lingering concern. At tackle, any depth issues could be ameliorated should Kolton Houston be reinstated to game action; he’s still in N.C.A.A. limbo due to a failed drug test. The lack of depth is striking inside: Burnette and Lee became the backup centers after sophomore Hunter Long broke his leg earlier this month. For now, guard depth comes from massively undersized junior Ben Reynolds and true freshman Greg Pyke. You hate to say it, but seeing that Georgia is ready to roll at every other position, this offensive line might end up being the difference between a B.C.S. bowl and the Outback Bowl.
Game(s) to watch
It simply doesn’t get any easier in the SEC. Georgia doesn’t pull one of the three top teams from the West – Alabama, L.S.U. or Arkansas. Instead, the Bulldogs draw Mississippi and Auburn, even if the Tigers’ game comes on the road. Georgia gets South Carolina on the road but Tennessee at home, as well as Georgia Tech. Better yet, the U.S.C. game doesn’t come early, as has been the case for years, but rather in early October; instead, Georgia plays Missouri – which has issues along the offensive line – on the second Saturday of the regular season. What do I see when I look at this schedule? Extended winning streaks – perhaps one that starts in September and runs, unabated, through December.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Everything has lined up in Georgia’s favor – everything but two factors, the offensive line and the kicking game. For the line, the Bulldogs are facing a battle on two fronts: one, the fact that they have two new starting tackles, one a true freshman, and must replace a four-year starter at center; and two, there’s not much depth inside, especially in the middle. The kicking game is less of a concern, merely due to how ineffective the Bulldogs’ were on field goals a season ago, but the new starters are true freshmen, remember, and I have no idea how Morgan or Barber might react under the bright lights of the SEC. The good news? As noted, Georgia won the SEC East last fall despite getting unpredictably sour play in the kicking game; in addition, the Bulldogs can easily survive any issues up front should the top six or seven remain healthy and Theus and Gates take to their spots on the outside. If that happens, then you’re looking a team that will challenge Alabama and L.S.U. for SEC supremacy.
The Bulldogs will do that anyway, thanks to a schedule that simply does not get any easier for a team in the SEC. The hardest game will be the road date against South Carolina – as well as the biggest game, even if last year proved that Georgia can still take the East with a loss to the Gamecocks. After that, however, I can’t find an opponent that should beat the Bulldogs. Will Georgia go undefeated? Based on the coaching, personnel, comfort in this system and schedule, it’s something that I can certainly see coming to pass. The question: Does Georgia have what it takes to take to care of business – does this team have the mental toughness to play a series of 60-minute games, not faltering over the second half?
Ask that question again in November. We need to see Georgia get rattled and still prevail in the second half, and not just once, and not just against a team like Vanderbilt, but against the real power teams on this slate – South Carolina, perhaps Tennessee and Florida, perhaps an Alabama or L.S.U. should the Bulldogs repeat as East champs. Beyond the offensive line and the kicking game, this is Georgia’s biggest hurdle: the 60-minute game. If the Bulldogs can show that fortitude against a title-worthy team, then the sky is the limit. For now, this is clearly the top team in the SEC East and one of seven or eight teams that can make a serious run towards a national championship. Anything less than a 10-2 regular season would mark a substantial disappointment.
Dream season Georgia rolls through the regular season without a loss and gets past L.S.U. in the SEC title game, earning a shot against Oregon for the national championship.
Nightmare season Sadly, we’ve been here before. Georgia enters the year with massive expectations yet sputters, losing to Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia Tech to finish 8-4, 5-3 in SEC play.
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 Run, Dawg Post and UGASports.com. For those interested in some Georgia blogs, check out Get the Picture – one of the very best anywhere – Georgia Sports Blog, Bulldogs Blog and Leather Helmet Blog.
Georgia’s all-name nominee S Bacarri Rambo.
Through 119 teams 490,768.
Who is No. 5? One former starting quarterback for the next program currently works in the healthcare industry, specifically dealing with the prevention of Deep Vein Thrombosis.
Tags: Aaron Murray, Abry Jones, Alec Ogletree, Arthur Lynch, Bacarri Rambo, Branden Smith, Chris Burnette, Chris Conley, Cornelius Washington, Dallas Lee, Georgia, Jarvis Jones, John Jenkins, John Theus, Keith Marshall, Kenarious Gates, Malcolm Mitchell, Mark Richt, Marlon Brown, Marshall Morgan, Michael Bennett, Sanders Commings, SEC, Shawn Williams, Taverres King, Todd Grantham, Todd Gurley
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