2012 Georgia Bulldogs have reasons to be optimistic, pessimistic
FIVE REASONS . . .
Georgia lost its last two games of the 2011 season, the final one an excruciating affair that actually came down in triple overtime to Michigan State. But the Bulldogs also won 10 games in a row, captured the SEC Eastern Division championship and reached the SEC title game for the first time since 2005.
Even after the recent decision of All-America tight end Orson Charles to enter the NFL draft a year early, the Bulldogs will welcome back 16 starters in 2012, including nine on the No. 5-ranked defense. So there will be high expectations again for Georgia. Here are some reasons to believe they’ll meet those expectations, and some reasons to believe they might not.
Reasons for optimism
- Defense wins championships. At least that was the message delivered by Alabama and LSU. The only two teams ranked above Georgia in total defense played for the national championship, which the Crimson Tide won in a shut out. The Bulldogs’ return two All-Americans on that side of the ball in outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Bacarri Rambo, while the seven other returnees all have all-conference potential. Leading the way will be third-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who will be carrying a new three-year contract.
- New blood in backfield. If competition breeds success, then the Bulldogs’ tailbacks should be in position to have a lot of it. Injuries and disciplinary issues blunted an otherwise productive first season for Isaiah Crowell, whose 850 yards rushing were enough to get him named SEC Freshman of the Year. But Georgia is looking for more, so it went out and signed the nation’s No. 1 running back prospect for the second year in a row. Keith Marshall of Raleigh, N.C., is a 5-11, 190-pound speedster whose GPA (4.29) and 40-yard-dash time (4-3) are almost a perfect match. Georgia added a commitment Friday from Todd Gurley, another 4-star running back from North Carolina. So those guys will compete with Ken Malcome, Richard Samuel, Carlton Thomas and Brandon Harton for playing time. Expect the competition to be intense.
- Wide receiver corps returns intact. Entering 2011, who would catch Aaron Murray’s passes was one of the Bulldogs’ biggest question marks. As it turned out, Georgia’s receivers ended up being one of the team’s most consistent groups. The Bulldogs’ top five wideouts – who accounted for 2,204 yards between them – all return, including explosive playmakers Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell. Some highly-touted newcomers will join them in the fall.
- Aaron Murray’s arm. The Bulldogs’ rising junior quarterback has thrown for 6,198 yards and 59 touchdowns in his first two seasons as a starter and there’s no reason to believe he won’t top the 3,000-yard mark for a third consecutive season. If he could raise his career completion percentage (60) and lower his interception totals (22) even a little bit, Murray could become the truly elite quarterback most project him to be.
- Scheduling break: Georgia was supposed to play its second game of the season on the road against South Carolina and Game 6 on the road against defending champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But the SEC had to reshuffle schedules to accommodate new members Missouri and Texas A&M. Now the Bulldogs head to Columbia, Mo, in Week 2, don’t play the Gamecocks until Week 6 and will not have to face the Crimson Tide at all. With a non-conference slate that includes Buffalo, Florida Atlantic and Georgia Southern and missing Bama, LSU and Arkansas from the West again, a path appears to have been cleared to another big win total.
Reasons for pessimism
- Special teams issues. Georgia was horrible on special teams in 2011, a fact made even more shocking considering the optimism that abounded coming in. But nobody expected former All-American place-kicker Blair Walsh to have the worst season of his career or anticipated the drop off in the respective units’ coverage or protection abilities. Richt is confident that the talent will improve among the players on the various units. But breaking in a new place-kicker in freshman Marshall Morgan and a new punter is going to be a challenge.
- O-line rebuilding. Offensive line coach Will Friend worked wonders last season in transitioning Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson into the tackle positions and negotiating injury issues at guard despite little depth. But that line’s weaknesses were exposed against top teams such as Boise State, LSU and Michigan State and now the Bulldogs will have to break in two more new tackles, along with team captain Ben Jones.
- Aaron Murray. Murray is listed twice here because, as good as he is most of the time, he could be really bad at others, especially in big games. As much as Murray improved in his second season as a starter, he regressed as far as giving up catastrophic plays. Murray delivered four “pick-six” interceptions in 2011 and his second-half fumbles against Michigan State and LSU in the SEC Championship changed the direction of those games.
- No more Brandon Boykin. The Bulldogs are going to miss their do-everything all-star probably more than they even know. As evidenced by his MVP performance in the Outback Bowl, Boykin was truly a force to be reckoned with on offense, defense and on special teams. Fellow cornerback Branden Smith is in position to fill that role in 2012, but it may be years before an athlete as versatile as Boykin comes through UGA again.
- The Wild West. Even if Georgia repeats as SEC East champions – a determination the 11-win South Carolina Gamecocks will surely have a say in – it will have to get through one of the wicked witches of the West to a BCS opportunity. Alabama, Arkansas and LSU are expected to reload for next season. And Auburn’s record in years after the Crimson Tide has won a national title is astounding.