Preseason countdown: No. 12 Georgia

No one saw Auburn coming last year, but a few key junior college transfers – Nick Fairley, who had one year under his belt, and Cam Newton – changed around a program that had everything come together at once. The breaks started to come, the confidence grew, and all of a sudden, the Tigers were right there with the SEC title and the national championship there for the taking. Also helping the Auburn cause was a relatively favorable schedule with almost all the big games at home, except for the regular-season finale at Alabama.

Georgia gets some of the same breaks. Tennessee is a road date, but any team worth thinking about winning the SEC title has to get out of Knoxville with a win. The second-toughest SEC road game, not counting the Florida showdown in Jacksonville? Ole Miss.

Auburn had its superstars come from out of the blue, and Georgia has two new players who might be just what the team needs in John Jenkins, a massively talented nose tackle, and Jarvis Jones, a playmaker of a linebacker who transferred over from USC.

Playing the role of Michael Dyer in the Auburn comparison is true freshman running back Isaiah Crowell, a slippery-tough runner who could provide the punch for the ground game that’s been missing ever since Knowshon Moreno left for the NFL. Aaron Murray appears ready to take his game to the next level, already being named the coaches’ preseason All-SEC quarterback, and if he can be steady, and if the new guys can be as good as expected, then finally, Georgia might surprise and become the program everyone’s been waiting for it to be under Mark Richt.

No one wants Richt to be fired. He’s a pillar of the community, he’s a good guy who doesn’t act like a typical SEC head coach, and the fan base would love nothing more than to see him be the one who takes the Georgia program over the hump. But going into his 11th year, he’s coming off two lousy years following up an 8-5 2009 season with a 6-7 mark in 2010 and he has to come up with a big season to get a shot at a 12th campaign. Part of the problem is the record, part of the problem is the timing, and part of the problem is that Georgia hasn’t gotten its turn on the SEC Wheel of National Titles.

In this phenomenal stretch of national championships, Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Auburn have all had their fun, and to go back a bit further, Tennessee fans can still remember their title in 1998. It’s been 31 years since Georgia had its big moment in the sun, and there’s no excuse to not be as good as the other SEC teams when it comes to be in the BCS Championship Game chase. 2008 was when it was supposed to happen when Matthew Stafford was leading the way, it didn’t happen, and now Richt gets one more shot to show that he’s the one to take the program from Point B to Point A.

The timing couldn’t be better to come out of the blue and be a major player in the SEC. Florida probably has one more year before it becomes a monster again, Tennessee is still sleeping, and South Carolina, as good as it is, is still South Carolina; there’s going to be a gaffe or two along the way. Georgia might have a ton of flaws, and it might be relying on a slew of unknowns to carry the way, but the East is never going to get easier than it is right now, and Richt has to take advantage.

The receiving corps has to find a replacement for A.J. Green’s lost production, and it could take a village to make it happen with receiver Tavarres King, along with a good group of tight ends, led by Orson Charles, to help make Murray stand out. Crowell has to be great out of the box, and the depleted offensive line needs to figure out how to fill in the blanks around tackle Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones.

The defense should be a brick wall up front and great in the secondary, but the linebacking corps is a question mark and needs Jones to play at an All-SEC level right away. The defense will end up being terrific, while the special teams could be the best in America with the return of punter Drew Butler and placekicker Blair Walsh for their senior years.

No, Georgia won’t be 2010 Auburn, but it could rise up and be good enough to win the East and play for the SEC title. And if not, next year will be all about a new era in Georgia football.

What to watch for on offense: The running game. After running for just 82 yards against Central Florida in the bowl loss, it’s time to start pounding away. Of the 21 rushing scores last year, 17 came in the six wins with just four coming in the seven losses. Georgia has been full of four and five-star talents that couldn’t run a lick, and now the backfield is depleted with Washaun Ealey leaving the program and Caleb King gone to the NFL Supplemental Draft. Carlton Thomas is a good little back who’ll come up with big yards at times, but he’s not helping the cause being suspended for the Boise State game, at least, for violating team rules. Former linebacker Richard Samuel is a bruiser, but the ground game needs Isaiah Crowell to do for Georgia what Marcus Lattimore did for the South Carolina offense last year. Crowell’s a ready-made true freshman with the talent to take the pressure off Aaron Murray and the passing attack, but he needs a steady line to run behind.

What to watch for on defense: The defensive tackles. Georgia’s 3-4 scheme is solid, but it would be nice to have a 4-3 for a little while to get the two NFL-ready defensive tackles on the field at the same time. John Jenkins is a special 340-pound talent who’s the textbook definition of an anchor, but Kwame Geathers stepped up his game this offseason and showed that he could be the main man in the middle. With these two rotating on the inside, the massive, tackle-like ends – Arby Jones and DeAngelo Tyson – will be free to stop the run from the outside. Whatever the combination is, good luck running up the middle on this group.

The team will be far better if: The offensive line can put together a solid starting five. Trinton Sturdivant was supposed to be a perennial all-star, but he was never able to stay healthy — suffering knee injury after knee injury. While the line was hardly counting on him being an All-SEC performer, it would’ve been nice to have had him in the mix. Along with the loss of Clint Boling to the NFL and the departure of Brent Benedict after an injury, there’s some work to do for a line that was a major disappointment. Cordy Glenn is a big talent who can work at either tackle spot and will get paid at the next level at guard, and center Ben Jones is an all-star. After those two, it’ll be a major fight to find the right players for the other three spots while getting more physical and more mean for the ground game.

The schedule: It’s not that bad. A great SEC team can be a national title SEC team with this schedule, helped mostly by missing LSU, Arkansas and Alabama from the West and getting Auburn at home. By mid-September, all the problems and all the issues of 2010 can quickly be erased, or the Mark Richt era could be on life support. Starting out with a showdown against Boise State in Atlanta will be a chance for the ‘Dawgs to make a national splash, and the South Carolina game in the SEC opener can make an early statement in the East race. While going to Tennessee will be a fight and Mississippi State will be strong, if Georgia is good enough to start out 2-0 it should be good enough to start out 7-0. While the finishing kick is hardly a breeze considering the defending national champions are coming to Athens, November isn’t all that bad. Georgia doesn’t have to leave the state in the final month, closing out the regular season at Georgia Tech and with layups against New Mexico State and Kentucky wrapped around the date with the Tigers.

Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Murray. The hope is for RB Crowell to be the star of the attack and the one everything works around, but this is Murray’s offense for now. He’s not all that big at just 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, but he has an excellent arm and he’s a tremendous decision maker. He wasn’t bad without Green in the lineup over the first four games, but he showed what he could do in a terrific final month once he started to click with his NFL millionaire target. Now he has to make everyone around him better, and he appears to be ready. Last year he was just trying to get his feet wet. This year he’s the leader and the season is on his shoulders.

Best defensive player: Junior DT Jenkins. The superstar JUCO transfer had his pick of anywhere he wanted to go, and after originally committing to Oklahoma State, and then getting the full-court press from Florida, Auburn, and Miami, he decided he was going to Georgia. Even with the emergence of Kwame Geathers this offseason on the nose, getting Jenkins is a major coup. Because he’s coming in from the JUCO ranks and because of his position, the pressure will be on to be another Fairley or a Terrance Cody right away, and he might be. He’s an NFL-caliber talent right now, and he should be the anchor of a rock of a Georgia run defense.

Key player to a successful season: Junior LB Christian Robinson. The Georgia pass rush wasn’t anything special last season, and that was with Justin Houston cranking out 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. While the pressure will be on USC transfer Jarvis Jones to be the star of the linebacking corps from the start, it’s Robinson who’s the veteran in the mix and has to be the steady pass rusher to work around. He finished fifth on the team with 44 tackles, but he only came up with two sacks.

The season will be a success if: The ‘Dawgs win the East. When you miss the three best teams from the West – Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas – and get South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn at home, you have to take advantage of it. There are major holes on the offensive line, receiver and linebacker, but the schedule is favorable, the influx of new talent should be a boost, and the desperation is there to win the East. Winning the SEC title is a stretch considering how good the West champion will be, but getting to the title game will be enough for Richt to stick around.

Key game: Sept. 10 vs. South Carolina. Beating Boise State in the opener would be a very, very big moment for the team’s attitude and confidence, but defeating South Carolina is more important. It’s a home game against the defending East champion, and with Coastal Carolina, at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, at Tennessee, and at Vanderbilt to follow, if the ‘Dawgs can start out 2-0, they’ll be favored to start 7-0 going into the party against Florida.