ATHENS – Georgia won 12 football games this season for the just the third time in the 120-year history of the program. So that is definitely a milestone to celebrate, and the Bulldogs did just that after beating Nebraska 45-31 in the Capital One Bowl on Tuesday.
But there was also a sense of what might have been as Georgia players scattered and made their way back to their homes for a short respite before classes resume on Monday. In the hours immediately after the game, the 2012 Bulldogs boasted “we believe we can beat anybody in the country” and “we still think we’re one of the best teams in the nation.”
Alas, they’ll watch the BCS Championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame on television just like everybody else come Monday.
Georgia coach Mark Richt was asked if, despite all the great successes of the season just past, does it feel a bit like a missed opportunity.
“Every year you don’t make it, it’s a missed opportunity, I think,” Richt said. “But you just don’t know.”
This much is known about the Bulldogs’ next football team:It will look radically than this last one on defense.
Junior linebacker Alec Ogletree announced shortly after the Capital One Bowl was over his intentions of entering the NFL draft. All-American outside linebacker Jarvis Jones reiterated Tuesday that he still hasn’t declared for early entry. But with consensus Top 5 projections, he’s expected to make that move before the Jan. 15 deadline. Noseguard Kwame Geathers is contemplating the same decision.
If all three choose the professional ranks, along with matriculated seniors on defense, the Bulldogs will be losing 12 defensive players who started football games this past season will not be back for this next one.
That’s an unusually large exodus even in the transient world that is college football.
“First of all, we’re not losing everybody,” said Richt, taking his usual optimistic view. “There are still some very good defensive players that will be sticking around and a lot of young ones that are waiting in the wings and working hard and preparing for their moment.
“I think we’re going to be very athletic. I think we’re going to be a fast defense. I think we’re going to have guys with the skill sets to get it done and then it’s just going to be a matter of how quickly can they begin to play, you know, championship-style defense. That’s going to be the big push.”
There are strong parts around which to build, including defensive lineman Garrison Smith, a rising senior, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who will be a sophomore, junior middle linebacker Amarlo Herrera and junior cornerback Damian Swann. Georgia will fill in around them with upstart players such as noseguard John Taylor, linebackers Josh Dawson and James DeLoach and defensive backs Sheldon Dawson, Corey Moore and Josh Harvey-Clemons.
Swann joked about being the only experienced player returning in the secondary next year.
“Yeah, I’ll probably feel a little lonely for a few weeks,” said Swann, who had two interceptions against Nebraska and a team-best four for the season. “But we know we have a lot of talented players on this team who are capable of getting the job done. They’ve just been waiting for their opportunity.”
And it’s not like the Bulldogs’ defense was infallible in the season just past. Georgia gave up 239 yards rushing to the Cornhuskers on Tuesday and an average of 299 in the final four games of the year. In the end, the Bulldogs allowed more than 80 yards more per game in 2012 (357.8) than they did a year ago when they were ranked fifth in the nation.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham insists he’s excited about the prospects of rebuilding the defense.
“We’re going to work hard and compete and it’s going to be fun,” Grantham said. “These seniors that are leaving, they kind of went through this a few years ago. The difference is the young players we have now have already (are familiar with it). When you watch the transition from Year 1 to Year 3 now, I mean, that (Nebraska) game wasn’t going great, but we found a way to win it. We showed more mental and physical toughness in the second half to win it. That’s why you win 12 games in a year.
“That’s what we have to work on with the young guys coming up, that mental and physical toughness to win ballgames. In this league, the bottom line is winning and losing and you do it by playing every snap as hard as you can with the right mindset.”
The good news for Georgia is, depending on the decision of quarterback Aaron Murray, virtually the entire offense is returning. The Bulldogs will lose leading receiver Tavarres King and fellow wideout Marlon Brown to graduation. But the tailback duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall returns, along three fullbacks, three tight ends and every starter on the offensive line.
That group just put together the most prolific offensive season in Georgia history. And Richt likes to point to them as Exhibit A in the argument that having to rebuild doesn’t necessarily mean to take a step back.
“If we all remember back even when we started spring ball, all the questions we had were about our offensive line and our offense in general,” Richt said. “We didn’t know about our running game. We had a lot of issues that made you think, ‘wow, we’re going to be in trouble.’ But I think our offensive line came through pretty good this year; I think our running game was very solid; I think that we played offensively probably better than be anybody expected. So I’m hoping that’s what we do defensively next year.”