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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Georgia (10-4, 6-2)

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 three 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.

The Bulldogs pushed Michigan State around for a half, bullying and bruising the Big Ten runner-ups with a safety, a long touchdown pass and an even longer punt returner. The Spartans stormed back with a 30-point second half, tying the game with 14 seconds left and eventually winning in the third overtime. Georgia’s defense allowed 31 second-half points to South Carolina in its fourth loss on the year.

Georgia’s second-half malaise was seen in both victory and defeat, however. Up 23-7 early in the third quarter against Vanderbilt, Georgia allowed the Commodores to pull within 23-14, 26-21 and 33-28 before finally putting the clamps down defensively. Likewise with Florida, which trailed by a touchdown at halftime but took a 20-17 heading into the fourth quarter before Georgia’s defense stood tall.

The Bulldogs still don’t know how to close games. This was also an issue in 2010, which led Mark Richt to make fourth-quarter play a point of emphasis last offseason. In 2010, Georgia outscored its competition over the first three quarters by a combined score of 349-192 but was outscored, 92-68, in the fourth quarter.

But after struggling to put away Mississippi State and Tennessee, Richt said on his radio show in mid-October that “one thing I think we need to do better is to finish.” In all, last year’s team was outscored in the fourth quarter and overtime by 97-81 — a slight improvement, but not where the Bulldogs need to be to fend off late challenges in the SEC.

Apples to oranges, perhaps, but consider how L.S.U., Alabama and Arkansas, the three best teams in the SEC, closed games in 2011. L.S.U. outscored its competition by 129-34 in the fourth quarter and by 264-73 in the second half. Alabama held a 111-18 fourth-quarter advantage. Arkansas may have struggled in the second quarter of games, but the Razorbacks closed strong: 108-48 over a game’s final 15 minutes.

These three SEC rivals had superior athletes, but so did Georgia. All four played the same schedule, give or take. But three showed an ability to close games in the fourth quarter while one struggled putting teams away. So how does a team “learn” to close strong?

You want to shy away from hyperbole, but there’s some truth to the idea that games are won in the fourth quarter. More often than not, however, games are sealed in the fourth quarter: Alabama and L.S.U. simply suffocated teams late, putting to bed any idea that a comeback was in the cards — except during the regular season, when the Tide couldn’t put the Tigers away.

It’s a mentality, and it can only be learned through repetition. That starts on the practice field in the spring, continues in the weight room over the summer and then returns to the field in August. Richt will again make this a point of emphasis for his team this offseason, as he should.

If he really wants to make sure Georgia closes strong, then he should run his first-team offense out against his first-team defense as often as possible. Run an unscripted, 15-play scrimmage; set goals for the offense — get here in a number of plays, convert this down and distance; run the ones and against the ones; run, period.

Richt should make it his goal to make these Bulldogs the most well-conditioned team in the SEC. Feel good, play good. Georgia has already proved it can play with anyone for 30 minutes. To be the best in the SEC, the Bulldogs need to round into 60-minute form.

Season grade: A- Georgia’s demise was, in fact, greatly exaggerated. Obituaries penned for 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.

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.

Offensive M.V.P. I called Aaron Murray the best quarterback in the SEC back in August. That he ended up coming in second, behind Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, does nothing to diminish what was a strong follow up to his sterling freshman season. Murray set a new school record with 35 touchdown passes, including a single-game record five in one half against New Mexico State. His 403 attempts were the fourth-most in school history; his 238 completions also ranked fourth. Murray’s 3,149 passing yards was good for fifth, while his quarterback efficiency rating, 146.1, ranked seventh on Georgia’s all-time list. Was this the finest passing season in school history?

Defensive M.V.P. A two-way tie: the pass rusher and the ball hawk. Rush linebacker Jarvis Jones, a former transfer from U.S.C., did more than just step in nicely for Justin Houston; he led the SEC in tackles for loss and sacks, earning all-American honors in the process. And unlike Houston, Jones opted to return for his senior season rather than enter the N.F.L. Draft. At safety, the aforementioned Rambo led the SEC with eight interceptions. He had four picks over his first three games — he missed the Boise State loss — and three over a four-week span in October and November, a stretch capped by his touchdown return against Auburn.

Stock watch Georgia’s losses are slim, but how Richt replaces the five contributors lost to graduation or the N.F.L. will decide how far the Bulldogs go in 2012. Two are along the offensive line: Cordy Glenn was a first-team all-SEC pick at left tackle last fall and center Ben Jones a 49-game starter. Orson Charles stretched the middle of the field in the passing game. DeAngelo Tyson was a two-year starter at defensive end and nose tackle. While far from perfect, cornerback Brandon Boykin gave the Bulldogs a degree of explosiveness in the return game and, at times, on offense. So why is Georgia’s succession plan for these five former standouts so vital? Because everything else is in place to make a B.C.S. run. The offense is ready to take another step forward if the new-look line gels in time for September. The defense gets better with every snap it takes in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 system. If Richt can seamlessly insert a handful of new starters into the mix, the only thing Georgia will be missing is a killer instinct.

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  1. [...] hard to argue with much in Paul Myerberg’s post-mortem of Georgia’s 2011 season. The Bulldogs allowed only 27 points in the first quarter all [...]

  2. DMK says:

    UGA’s stock prognosis for next year looks to be bound up with their astoundingly easy schedule.

    They miss Bama, Arky, and LSU in the regular season. At USCe will be tough. Missouri, UT, UF, Auburn, Tech are not nothing, but UGA should be favored by at least a TD in all of those.

    Depending on how the SEC West shakes out, we could see a situation that has been unheard of in the last several years: a one-loss (or even undefeated) SEC champ who gets voted/computed out of the title game because of a weak schedule.

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