It was almost like the hangover from 2008 carried over into 2009.
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It was supposed to be Georgia’s turn on the SEC national championship carousel two years ago, but the team underwhelmed and didn’t play up to the expectations, and last year it became merely average. However, things really aren’t that bad.
Head coach Mark Richt is going into his tenth year, and while he has been a tremendous success and Georgia has been a major power in conference play, the program has been overshadowed by Florida, LSU, and now Alabama when it comes to being a national title superpower.
Talent has never been a problem, Georgia gets more than its share of top-ranked prospects, and the coaching has been more than fine, but the right mix of skill, timely breaks, and luck haven’t been there to get the Dawgs over the top.
Florida won its two national titles under Urban Meyer with a loss, and LSU won championships with a loss under Nick Saban and two losses under Les Miles. Georgia had its mega-year in 2002 going 13-1, but it missed out on playing for it all when Ohio State and Miami went on a roll. Eight years later and without a sniff of a BCS title run, there’s a little bit of heat on Richt to start producing at a higher level. The SEC is cut-throat, and while there’s no question that Richt is one of the premier head coaches in college football (and would get snapped up in a heartbeat if he’s let go), he can’t have another 8-5 year without many thinking it’s time for a change.
Georgia doesn’t necessarily have to be in the national championship chase this year, but it has just enough talent on both sides of the ball, and the right schedule with the toughest road games at Auburn and Colorado (not counting the neutral site game against Florida), and missing Alabama and LSU from the West. And then there’s the reloading factor with the Gators and Tide needing to fill several large holes. If you’re going to get the two big boys, do it now, but Georgia has to rebuild a bit, too. This might not be Richt’s best team, but with the schedule, the talent, and the timing, with so many SEC teams in a transitional period, to go trite, why not Georgia?
The offensive line should be among the best in America, even with so many health issues, there’s speed and talent to burn at running back and receiver, and there’s plenty of four-star high school talent being developed across the defense. The kicking game, with Ray Guy winner Drew Butler and Lou Groza finalist Blair Walsh, is peerless, there’s depth across the board, and there are enough good pieces in the puzzle to push for a special year.
Can the quarterback play be better? Aaron Murray is more talented than last year’s starter, Joe Cox, but he’s untested. Can the defense start taking the ball away after forcing a mere two fumbles? Richt addressed that with some major changes with new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham changing up the alignment. Can Georgia get the breaks and steal an SEC Championship? Yeah, and there’s no reason to set the expectations low.
Georgia can absolutely win the East and it can absolutely rise up at the right time to win the conference championship if everything breaks right. And lately, if you win the SEC Championship, big things tend to follow. No, this isn’t a national title team, but that’s not to say it can’t come back and rebound in a huge way.
What to watch for on offense: The health of the offensive line. There were injury problems throughout the line last year, topped by a second knee injury to OT Trinton Sturdivant, and there was plenty of scrambling. The starting combination was rarely the same with the right starting five not set until halfway through the year. Even with all the drama, the production was still solid. Now, with talent, depth, and plenty of experience, the line might be the best in America if everyone stays healthy and the skill players will get plenty of time to work.
What to watch for on defense: The 3-4. Grantham will install a pro-style defensive scheme taking pass rushing star Justin Houston off the line and making him into a hybrid. The idea is to put three sides of beef up front, and the Georgia linemen are quick enough to get into the backfield, too. The four linebackers will be turned loose to be disruptive, swarm around the ball, and fly to the quarterback from a variety of angles.
The team will be far better if … it wins the turnover battle and if it stops screwing up. Georgia, with enough talent and speed to hang around with anyone in the SEC, forced two fumbles and picked off ten passes, while the offense gave it away 28 times. Alright, so takeaways aren’t necessarily indicative of success (Florida and Cincinnati only recovered three fumbles and Alabama came up with seven), but the knucklehead streak when it came to penalties didn’t help. The Bulldogs were flagged 105 times; only five teams got hit with more penalties.
The schedule: Georgia won’t be the best team in the SEC, but it has the schedule to look that way. Any SEC East team worth its salt would take this slate in a heartbeat. There’s no Alabama or LSU to deal with, Florida, as always, is at a neutral site, Tennessee is a home game, and the road games are at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Auburn. Throw in a home date against Vanderbilt and anything less than a New Year’s Day bowl appearance will be a mega-disappointment. Even the non-conference schedule works out well with the Georgia Tech game at home and the one tough road trip at Colorado. On the negative side, the game against the Buffs is coming off a road trip to Mississippi State for the only back-to-back road games of the year, and the week off doesn’t come until late November.
Best offensive player: Junior WR A.J. Green. With size, great hands, tremendous athleticism, and the ability to always come through in the clutch, Green will be one of the top 15 players taken in the 2011 NFL Draft (assuming he leaves early), and he should make life far better for new starting quarterback, Aaron Murray. He was banged up throughout the second half of last year, but he was a monster early on with a three game stretch against Arkansas, Arizona State, and LSU catching 20 passes for 389 yards and five touchdowns.
Best defensive player: Junior OLB/DE Justin Houston. A consistently solid pass rusher last year finishing with 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, now he’ll get to do more against the run after being moved to outside linebacker. It’s a great move career-wise for the 6-3, 259-pounder as he’ll get to show NFL scouts what he can do at his natural next-level position. There will be no transition period if he takes off early next year; he’ll get a chance to show how he can light up offenses with more room to move.
Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman QB Aaron Murray. There was supposed to be a major quarterback derby going into the fall, but Zach Mettenberger, who looked great at times this offseason, got his drink on, got arrested, and ended up getting booted off the team, while Logan Gray has been a guy, nothing more. Murray isn’t all that big, but he has a next-level arm and has just enough talent to grow into the job over the next few years. If he’s outstanding right away, Georgia has a legitimate shot to win the SEC title. If he’s inconsistent, the ceiling is a Florida bowl on New Year’s Day.
The season will be a success if … Georgia wins the SEC East. If you’re going to catch Florida, do it now. The Bulldogs might still be growing, too, but they have the schedule and just enough talent to win the division to get to the SEC title game. For a team with so many concerns, anything else would be gravy. If this isn’t a division-winning year, 10-2 with a January 1st bowl game would signal a big bounceback.
Key game: Oct. 30 vs. Florida. Enough is enough. The Bulldogs have lost four of the last five Cocktail Parties (yeah, we’re calling it what it is) and were destroyed over the last two years by a combined score of 90-27. The Gator schedule is just tough enough that Georgia can lose this game and still win the East, but a victory would almost cement a trip to Atlanta.