Preseason countdown: No. 8 Georgia

Georgia went 10-4, won the SEC East and lost a triple overtime Outback Bowl thriller to Michigan State that could’ve easily have gone the other way, and even with all of that the program still might not be all that close to winning a national title.

The problem with the 2011 season was that it gave the program a false sense of everything being on the right track. Instead, the Bulldogs appear to be further mired in a sort of SEC purgatory that they haven’t been able to get out of for several years, staying one step behind the biggest of the SEC big boys depending on the season, but being just good enough under Mark Richt to make it seem like they’re just one tweak, one good break, one big everything-goes-right season away from finally winning the national title for the first time in over 30 years.

The talent has been on par with all the other superpower programs in the SEC – and yes, Georgia is a superpower program. The coaching has been fine and the support from the school and fan base have been terrific. But for whatever reason in a league where the difference between being an elite team and winning a national championship is paper thin, there’s something missing.

It’s not like Georgia didn’t get exactly the big break it needed getting to play in an awful SEC East – outside of South Carolina – and with an all-timer of a schedule. Not only was the opener against Boise State close to home, but the South Carolina showdown was in Athens and there wasn’t an Alabama, Arkansas or LSU from the West to deal with until the SEC championship game. Basically, everything that was expected to happen last year actually happened with tough losses to Boise State and South Carolina turning out to be no big deal thanks to as squishy-soft of a final 10-game slate as could be reasonably asked for by an SEC team.

The season was good enough record-wise to get Richt a contract extension, even though absolutely nothing has changed since he was supposedly on the hottest season of any major head coach. He still hasn’t proven he can take the program that one final step further, and while it might seem totally unfair and completely unreasonable to suggest that a guy who has gone 106-38 in 11 years as a coach of an SEC team hasn’t gotten the job done, yeah, compared to Alabama, LSU, Florida and Auburn over the last seven years he hasn’t done enough. In the SEC you’re either a national championship program or you’re not.

With a slew of suspensions, defections and off-the-field problems, Georgia has come under fire for having the most disastrous offseason by anyone outside of Happy Valley. Three starters in the secondary aren’t going to be around for the first part of the season – have fun with that, Missouri – but it was star running back Isaiah Crowell’s arrest and then dismissal on felony weapons charges that put the cherry on top. Now Richt has come under fire for more than just not winning a national championship, but for being the head man with all the problems and all the controversies happening on his watch. However, everything will quickly be forgotten if Georgia beats the teams it’s supposed to.

Unfortunately, at this point going 11-1 and playing for the SEC title still wouldn’t be enough for a program that’s way overdue to go 13-1 and win the national title.

What to watch for on offense: Massive shuffling on the offensive line. The Crowell-less running back situation will be fine as long as the blocking is solid, and the passing game should be dangerous and efficient as long as Murray stays upright. The problem is that the battered and injured offensive line from last year only gets back two starters and might not have the right combination figured out until the last minute. Is David Andrews good enough to handle the job at center? If he’s not, then top guard Chris Burnette will probably have to move to the middle. Will star recruit John Theus be able to step in and produce right away at one of the tackle jobs to allow Kolton Houston or Kenarious Gates to move around where needed? Will JUCO transfer Mark Beard push out Dallas Lee from the left guard job? Fortunately, there’s plenty of versatility to play around with and lots of options to get the five best blockers on the field.

What to watch for on defense: The patching of the leak in the secondary. The pass defense was among the best in America last season, partly because the Bulldogs didn’t exactly deal with a slew of high-octane bombers, but the SEC opener at Missouri at Sept. 8 will be a dangerous test and Tyler Bray and Tennessee on Sept. 29 will be dangerous. If all goes according to plan the Dawgs will have everyone back in place in the defensive backfield by the time the Vols come to town, but they’re going to be without corner Sanders Commings, All-America safety Bacarri Rambo and possibly corner Branden Smith for the Missouri showdown. Former receiver Malcolm Mitchell looks like a keeper at corner and Shawn Williams is one of the SEC’s best strong safeties, but the loaded secondary will be in the spotlight over the first part of the season.

The team will be far better if: The Crowell-less running game works. The hope is for star recruit Keith Marshall to be ready to go out of the box and/or for the combination of Ken Malcome and Brandon Harton to add some production, but no matter who’s running the ball, the ground attack has to work to take the heat off of Aaron Murray and the passing game. The Bulldogs ran for 15 touchdowns, but seven came against Coastal Carolina and New Mexico State, the only other multiple-TD game was against Tennessee, and there weren’t any rushing scores over the final four games. The worst rushing performance was against Michigan State, the second-worst was against LSU and the fifth-worst was against Boise State – all were losses.

The schedule: There are landmines, but Georgia should be able to roll out of bed and win at least eight games without breathing hard. South Carolina and Missouri will be on the road, and Florida, of course, will be in Jacksonville, meaning there won’t be an October home game. Georgia Southern, because of its offense, will be a perfect tune-up game before finishing up against Georgia Tech. The ‘Dawgs might have to deal with some nasty divisional games away from home, but once again they miss all the big boys from the West. There’s no Alabama, LSU, or Arkansas, and getting Ole Miss at home is as nice as it gets. However, Auburn is going to be far better and tougher, but it’s not going to be in the national title chase like other West teams will be.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Aaron Murray. If he was 6-foot-4 instead of 6-1 he might be a slam-dunk No. 1 overall draft pick. There aren’t any question marks about his smarts, his accuracy, his decision-making ability, or his arm, but he throws a few too many picks. While he had to press a bit with the running game merely average at times, now it will be his job to keep spreading the ball around while keeping the mistakes to a minimum. In his third year as the starter, he should be able to do that and he should be able to make everyone around him better. Last year he lost star receiver A.J. Green to the Cincinnati Bengals and threw for 3,149 yards and 35 scores, and this year he should be even better.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Jarvis Jones. There was a big concern over a neck injury suffered when he was at South Carolina, but there weren’t any problems last year for one of the nation’s top pass rushers. At 6-3 and 241 pounds, he’s the perfect NFL tweener as a 3-4 outside linebacker or as a Von Miller-type on the line. Athletic, aggressive and with a great burst into the backfield, he came up with 13.5 sacks with 19.5 tackles for loss, but he was also consistent and excellent against the run, finishing second on the team with 70 tackles. He’ll be the leader of a great front seven that should be a rock against the run.

Key player to a successful season: Freshman RB Marshall. Ken Malcome has decent ability and potential to pound away for the running game, and Brandon Harton is a speedster who could be a perfect third-down back, but it’s Marshall who needs to be everything that Isaiah Crowell was supposed to be. No, Marshall isn’t as good as Crowell, but he was the team’s top recruit coming off an 1,891 yard, 25 touchdown season on the way to earning the North Carolina Player of the Year honors. Very quick and very slippery, he’s a talented back who could carry the offense at times, but he won’t have to. If he can effectively average around five yards per carry, he’ll be doing his job.

The season will be a success if: Georgia wins the SEC title. No, the Bulldogs aren’t better than LSU or Alabama, but they are good enough to win the SEC East and they have the right schedule to get to a second straight championship game. If they can get back to the big show then they have to hope they can come up with the right performance on the right day to pull off the win. They gave LSU fits for a little while last year before the momentum turned, and now the defense is a year older and a year better, as is Aaron Murray.

Key game: Oct. 6 at South Carolina. Georgia can’t win the SEC title without getting there first, and to do that might take a win over the Gamecocks in Columbia. Unfortunately the bye week comes after the trip, but considering the Dawgs spend the entire month of October without a home game, they might need it. They’ll especially need it to be ready for Florida on Oct. 27 in a must-win situation if they can’t beat South Carolina.