Much pessimism has been written about Georgia lately, some of it by me. The more I pay attention to what Mark Richt has done this offseason, the more intrigued I become with their chances to jump up from a year of disappointment to an SEC East title. While I am not willing to go out on a limb and change my tune of how I expect the East to shake out today, no prediction is set in stone February before the season.
By: Russ Mitchell
Let’s look past the pessimism that seems to be so popular right now and try to focus on the positive. The term “Sleeper” gets tossed around a lot this time of year and usually that is a kiss of death…just ask Ole Miss and Jevan Snead two years ago. But like any of the four teams capable of winning the Eastern Division, they all are Sleepers in one way or another.
The problem with Georgia is the last three years and those three seasons are clouding the perception of the program. To be fair, this is the reason so many Georgia fans are upset with Mark Richt and expect him to be fired at the end of the year. It started in 2008 with a team that was ranked #1 in both polls only to be throttled in their three losses finishing 10-3. Somehow 10-3 became a disappointing record but based on the starting point, the way those three losses occurred and combined with the NFL talent on the team…the disappointment was justified.
The last two years have been inconsistent, turnover at the quarterback position, lack of direction in play-calling and an underachieving offensive line turned one of the most talented teams in the nation into a third tier bowl team. In 2009 UGA finished 8-5 with a win in the Independence Bowl…that should have been a bump in the road but 2010 ended with a loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl. A game where an SEC offense could not score a touchdown on their CUSA opponent raised the frustration in Athens to epic proportions.
This is not meant to bring up bad memories for Dawg fans…it is meant to explain the local and national pessimism surrounding the program. But this is a new year and time to evaluate the recent tough seasons with what Georgia actually will bring to the table this fall. There are more than a few reasons to be excited about UGA’s opportunity this fall and it is only fair to look at the other side of the coin to see the full picture of this Georgia team.
First of all we need to review the schedule because this is usually what makes or breaks a team before the season starts. The season starts off in the Georgia Dome against Boise State…outside of pure bias please tell me what SEC fan is realistically going to pick UGA to lose in Atlanta to Boise State? The SEC isn’t a mediocre ACC team and this isn’t some meaningless bowl game, we all remember the last time Boise played UGA in the state of Georgia. I am not saying this will be an easy game, but you won’t see me picking Boise to beat Georgia in Georgia. The Bulldogs get what most feel are the three worst teams in the SEC West (Auburn, MSU and Ole Miss) even if the West is a tougher division than the East those games are a positive for UGA.
South Carolina is a home game this year, Florida is still in Jacksonville but minus Urban Meyer, the Vols are just as big a question as UGA and Kentucky/Vanderbilt are still in the East. That looks like a pretty manageable SEC slate of games with only three true road games with Florida being a neutral location. But schedule is only part of the equation…the players will have a lot to say about the success of the team.
For the first time since 2007/2008 Georgia returns a starter at Quarterback and while the term Sophomore Slump does exist, most players make the most improvement in their second year. Having Aaron Murray as the returning starter and in his third season at UGA is a huge plus for the Dawgs. If Murray is going to take the offense to the next level he needs to elevate the play of the guys around him. AJ Green is gone and while there are players at the skill positions…they haven’t proved it yet. This is Georgia’s biggest concern of the offseason, the receivers and backs have to step up.
Speaking of stepping up, the Georgia defense was actually pretty good last year with a completely new system. Todd Grantham’s type of players were not there a year ago, there wasn’t a dominant defensive tackle, the ends were still too small but Justin Houston was the perfect 3-4 linebacker and it showed every week. With a brand new scheme UGA had the fourth rated total defense and the fifth rated scoring defense in the SEC.
The secondary should be very strong with both safeties returning along with cornerback Brandon Boykin back for his senior season. Southern Cal transfer Jarvis Jones sat out last season and should play a similar role that Justin Houston did last season...just don’t expect Jones’ hand to be on the ground very often. The nose tackle position is still a work in progress, but they did just fine without a dominant nose in 2010. One huge advantage Richt has going into this season is that he doesn’t need to worry about the defense. This was not the case with Willie Martinez and if Richt feels confident in what the D is capable of (like the VanGorder days) he can focus on the offense.
The offense needs attention but for some reason I am more confident about the offensive line than in past seasons. Stacy Searels is a good coach but he just wasn’t getting the job done. People with more knowledge than me blame the Strength and Conditioning program…I blame Searels. Will Friend is a good coach but more importantly he is a new face with new ideas that hopefully will try to motivate the line in a way it wasn’t the last three seasons. UGA has good offensive lineman, which is part of the frustration with the lack of production for years at nearly every spot.
Think about the impact that Shawn Elliot had at South Carolina this year. Yes, Marcus Lattimore made the Gamecock line better but in 2010 South Carolina averaged nearly a sack less a game with their new Offensive Line Coach and still had Stephen Garcia as the QB. Elliot came from Appalachian State and made an impact immediately…Will Friend can do the same thing in Athens. Just look at the talent and experience that is on that line…guys like Kenarious Gates, Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones should be very strong in the middle and there are capable tackles on the roster.
In my Pre-Spring SEC rankings Georgia was listed 9th and while I am not ready to change that today, it would be irresponsible to lock any school in stone seven months before the season starts. The SEC East is wide open, any of four teams can win the division and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if any of the four do win it. When you actually break down the Georgia team it isn’t out of the question to see them having a big year. Some coaches do their best when backed into a corner and Mark Richt will be in that corner early with two very difficult games to start the season. How he handles 2011 will define where he is in 2012.
As our regular Georgia readers (and my email inbox) can eagerly attest, I have not been the biggest advocate for the Bulldog football team the past three years. And I continue to have strong reservations about the roster for 2011 (those of you touting running back Isaiah Crowell as this year’s savior, is the true freshman going to block for himself too?).
However, UGA gets a significant break with its 2011 schedule.
After several campaigns that featured brutal calendars, IF the Bulldogs are for real they’ll enter the World’s Greatest Outdoor Cocktail Party 7-0, likely ranked in the top 10. And off a bye week at that!
Boise State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game stirs the imagination. However, the Broncos are replacing a bevy of starters on offense, including both of Kellen Moore’s WRs, off to play in the NFL (Austin Pettis and Titus Young).
Still, don’t think you’re going to run over this Boise team, UGA – it returns eight starters from a defense that finished the season ranked seventh in the nation against the run. Oh, and the entire front seven looks like it’ll be comprised of seniors.
A loaded and experienced South Carolina team is next on the slate, however the Gamecocks must travel to Athens, which levels the playing field.
If, and it’s a big if, the Dawgs are good enough to get past BS and SC, the schedule up to Florida is as follows: Coastal Carolina, @ (a rebuilding) Ole Miss, Miss State, @ Tennessee (a team that’s lost all of its stars from the 2009 recruiting class), @ Vandy, and that bye week.
That’s a far cry from the nightmare of schedule’s past. And by this point in the season, many of Georgia’s inexperienced players will have hopefully cut their teeth.
Next up, Florida… The Gators have a bye week too – however, unlike Georgia they’ll be entering the WLOCP coming off a frightening October: Alabama, @ LSU, and @ Auburn. That’s bound to leave a mark.
Then UGA has New Mexico State, Auburn and Kentucky… all three between the hedges. Before finishing @ Georgia Tech.
If THIS isn’t the year you rebound, Georgia, it won’t be for lack of an easy schedule; relatively speaking, for the SEC.
Is the media being too pessimistic about the 2011 Bulldogs, or are we being too optimistic ?
Follow Russ on Twitter @russmitchellsec or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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