2011 Record: 10-4 (7-1 in SEC)
Head Coach: Mark Richt (106-38 at UGA; 60-28 in SEC)
Four Year Trend: 8.5 wins, 4.75 losses overall; 5 wins, 3 losses in SEC
Last Bowl Game: 2011 season Outback Bowl: lost to Mich St 33-30 3OT
Revenge: 10/6 at South Carolina
Stats to Cheer: had 210 plays of 10 yards or more (2nd in SEC); held opponents to 28.93% on third down conversions (3rd in SEC)
Stats to Fear: allowed opponents to score on 90.63% of trips to red zone (last in SEC); allowed 33 sacks (11th in SEC)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 7; Defense: 9; Specialists: 0)
Key Defensive Returnees: OLB Jarvis Jones (70 tackles, 13.5 sacks), S Bacarri Rambo (55 tackles, 8 INT), Alec Ogletree (52 tackles, 3 sacks in 8 games), S Shawn Williams (72 tackles, 4 INT), LB Michael Gilliard (65 tackles, 2 sacks), CB Sanders Commings (55 tackles), NT John Jenkins (28 tackles, 3 sacks), CB Branden Smith (24 tackles, 2 INT), LB Christian Robinson (47 tackles), LB Amarlo Herrera (37 tackles), DE/OLB Cornelius Washington (5 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Aaron Murray (35 TD, 14 INT), WR Tavarres King (46 rec, 8 TD), WR/DB Malcolm Mitchell (45 rec, 4 TD), WR Michael Bennett (32 rec, 5 TD)
Top Recruits: RB Keith Marshall, OT John Theus, OLB/DB Josh Harvey-Clemons, LB Jordan Jenkins, DT Johnathan Taylor, CB Sheldon Dawson, RB Todd Gurley
CFBZ: Georgia must replace some key play-makers this year. Brandon Boykin, Isaiah Crowell and Orson Charles have all moved on. Which player will be the most critical for Georgia to replace?
Leather Helmet Blog: Though Isaiah Crowell tended to find himself on the trainer’s table or in Mark Richt’s doghouse often last season, he showed signs of one day becoming a major player in the SEC, which will make him very difficult to replace right away. With his early departure, Dawg Nation once again finds itself without a proven running back, which has become all too familiar the last few years. Fortunately, the #1 running back in the class of 2012, Keith Marshall, arrived in Athens this past January as an early enrollee, and was joined by his good friend Todd Gurley, another highly touted running back, this summer. Both are turning coach’s heads, and receiving plenty of praise from teammates and coaches alike through summer camp. Add in fifth year senior Richard Samuel and redshirt sophomore Ken Malcolme, and there will be some combination of running back by committee between the hedges this fall. Who steps up the most and replaces the shoes left empty by Crowell, is anybody’s guess.
CFBZ: Special Teams was a liability for Georgia last year and cost them in three of their four losses. What are your expectations for Special Teams this year?
Leather Helmet Blog: Special Teams may be the most unknown of all the units on this year’s squad. With both kickers graduating and moving on to the NFL, UGA will rely on two true freshman, Marshall Morgan (place kicking) and Colin Barber (punting), to step up and perform like upper classmen. Both were All-World at their respective high schools, and are both receiving praises from coaches early in camp. But it’s one thing to hit a 45 yarder on the practice fields in Athens, and another to hit a 45 yarder when down by 1 to South Carolina with less than a minute on the clock, and 80,000 Gamecock fans rattling in your head.
As far as the rest of the Special Teams, it’s widely speculated that Mark Richt has completely changed his philosophy this year, and will be throwing in starters to help run down the man with the ball as opposed to the walk-ons which gave up multiple runbacks for six last season. If this proves to be the case, I would expect improvement on kick coverage for this year’s squad.
With the new rules placing kickoffs at the 35-yard line, Richt has already said he plans to kick the ball through the endzone every chance he gets, even if it does place the ball at the 25-yard line as opposed to 20-yard line in years past. In addition, I would expect to see many punts aimed at the sidelines as well.
CFBZ: The offensive line must replace three starters. With spring practice in the books and fall practice moving along, which players do you see as being the strength of this unit and who will need to step up?
Leather Helmet Blog: Perhaps the player receiving the most chatter from both coaches and teammates is sophomore David Andrews, who is expected to replace four year starter Ben Jones at center. Reports have him holding his own in practice against UGA’s super-nose guards, John Jenkins and Kwame Gaethers, who weigh close to 700 pounds combined. Also, keep an eye on John Theus, the #1 rated offensive lineman in the 2012 class who has all but officially been named the starter at right tackle. Theus is said to be the most SEC-ready lineman right out of high school in years, not just in Athens, but across the SEC. If Theus starts as a freshman, which looks likely, he will be the first since Trinton Sturdivant in 2008, and only the third in Athens in the past 25 years. Finally, do not sleep on sophomore Watts Dantzler, who has drastically filled out his 6’7 frame since arriving on campus a year ago. Dantzler is assumed to be the backup at several positions, and may find himself thrusted into the starting role with little warning.
Of course, all of these projections could be shaken up if the bizarre case of Kolton Houston gets resolved before, or during the season. Houston is a clear-cut starter on the OL, but is declared ineligible due to continuous positive tests for a banned substance which was administered to him during a shoulder rehab following his senior year of high school two years ago. Despite scientific proof that he has not taken the substance in over two years, the NCAA will not budge on the issue until a negative test is presented. A tough break for UGA, and a situation that I cannot say I have ever been exposed to in my years of following the sport.
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about Georgia football this season?
Leather Helmet Blog: This season UGA possesses defensive talent that has the potential to reflect the Junkyard Dawg days of Erk Russell back in the early and mid-1980’s. If the Dawgs can get through the first few games, where multiple key members are either suspended, or expected to be suspended, momentum may kick in and roll all the way to the Georgia Dome in December, and perhaps beyond. Aaron Murray continues to mature at quarterback, and in all likelihood will break the UGA all-time touchdown mark sometime in late October or early November. Everybody wants to see just how much he has matured in his fourth year in the system (third behind center), and are hopeful he will minimize the careless mistakes that led to at least two of the four losses in 2011. With one of the “easiest” schedules in the SEC this fall, winning is not a question for this team, but instead how many they can string up in a row, and when.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Leather Helmet Blog: As a lifelong fan and current student at UGA, my heart always says “14-0 and BCS Champions,” every year, no matter how unrealistic it may be at times. But spoken like an aspiring journalist who uses rhyme and reason when breaking down an upcoming season, I predict UGA will go 12-2, and win the Sugar Bowl. The two losses will come from some combination of Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, and LSU (in the SECCG), which is anybody’s guess. Of course I hope I am wrong…. dead wrong…. and we beat them all, but I am trained as a Dawg fan to expect a bit of disappointment at some point every fall.
In order to consider this season successful, Dawg fans will not only expect to be in Atlanta competing for the SEC Championship in December, but to at least be in the game at the end, unlike last season. An SEC Championship would be a great way to send out a group of seniors who have endured so much during their tenure in Athens, but if they come up short of that goal, a convincing win over a highly ranked team in January would be a great way to go out.
I refuse to buy into the “BCS Championship or nothing” attitude, because there is so much more to the sport of college football than having to be #1 at the end. That being said, a season that lacks unwanted drama, too many mental mistakes, and exhibits competitiveness against every team we face, would be a successful season in Athens. And if you are going to make me put a number of wins out there, I will go with 11, considering the talent and potential we have on both sides of the ball.
Georgia took a huge step forward in 2011. Going into the season, Mark Richt was the popular pick from every Tom, Dick and Harry for the coach on the hottest seat. Coming off of a 6-7 season, Richt's first losing season at Georgia, that was to be expected. In 2011, Georgia turned the tides and improved by four wins overall and in-conference. A big key was the continued improvement of Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense and now that Grantham is in his third year the improvement should continue.
On offense, Georgia has one of the top QBs in the league in Aaron Murray. Murray had eleven more TD tosses than his closest competitor in the SEC and he returns just about all of his targets (except Orson Charles) from last year. Georgia returns five receivers that had double-digit receptions and they will add Rantavious Wooten and Justin Scott-Wesley to the mix. One of Murray's strengths is his ability to spread the football around and it shows when you see that twelve players caught TD passes for Georgia in 2011. One thing to watch is Murray's timing with Tavarres King. He and King took a little while to get on the same page last year but by the end of the season they seemed to be in a much better rhythm together. Another guy to watch is sophomore Chris Conley. As a true freshman, Conley came on strong and should get more playing time this season. The RB job with start out by committee with Boo Malcome leading the group. True freshman Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall both are very talented and will get the rock early in the season. How well the RBs contribute and how well the OL can gel together will decide Georgia's fate on offense this season.
On defense, Georgia is stocked. The defensive line is as talented and deep as it's been in years. John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers will split time at the nose. Georgia is moving Cornelius Washington and Ray Drew to compete at defensive end but I would expect Washington to also play some OLB early in the season with some of the looming suspensions. Also at DE is Abry Jones and the underrated Garrison Smith. At LB, Georgia has two of the most talented players in the league in Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones. In addition to those two, Georgia also has Christian Robinson, Mike Gilliard and Amarlo Herrera as well as some young players and incoming freshmen that will look to contribute. The front seven is stocked and should continue to improve this season. The question marks will come in the secondary due to some expected suspensions early in the season. Georgia has one of the top safety combos in the Nation with Shawn Williams and Baccari Rambo but Rambo is expected to miss time at the beginning of the year. Sophomore Corey Moore will need to step up in Rambo's place to start the season. At corner, Georgia has Sanders Commings, Branden Smith and Damian Swann. Due to the suspension of Commings, Georgia has also moved WR Malcolm Mitchell to corner and he is expected to split time between offense and defense (seeing the bulk of his playing time early in the year on defense). That's how confident the Georgia staff is in the depth they have at WR, that they can move their most reliable target from last year over to defense. Overall, there is talent in spades but Georgia struggled with depth last year. Despite Georgia's well documented scholarship retention issues, the defense appears to be deeper this season with better talent (and talent that fits better in their system) than in previous years.
Last year, Georgia essentially beat the teams they were supposed to beat but they came up short in their games against the four best teams they played. When all was said and done, Georgia went 0-4 against the top eleven teams in the country. Simple put, Georgia was a good but not elite team last year. For Georgia to take that next step, they need to be better in all areas. Special Teams will be a key for Georgia. The South Carolina and Michigan State losses can be directly traced back to Special Teams errors (Melvin Ingram punt return for TD, Blair Walsh missed FG) and the LSU game turned when Tyrann Mathieu started making plays on Special Teams. If Georgia can improve their special teams and cut down on costly turnovers they have the ability to go a long way this season.
Despite talk of Georgia's "easy" schedule, they still play an SEC schedule and they have five games against teams that are considered rivals. They do have a huge benefit of not playing Alabama and LSU from the SEC West, but they still have to approach every game in front of them as all of their conference games, starting with Missouri, will be big. The areas to watch for Georgia will be special teams, the offensive line and weathering the early season suspensions. Could this be a special season for Georgia or will it end in heart-break?
2012 Prediction: 11-1
Top 25 Countdown
#12 Michigan State
#14 Kansas State
#16 Virginia Tech
#17 Boise State
#19 Ohio State
#23 Oklahoma State
Previous 2012 Previews: