Last August, all the talk surrounding Georgia coach Mark Richt was whether he would survive to coach another season. This season, all the talk surrounding Richt is whether his team can repeat as SEC East champs.
Georgia opened 0-2 last season, but the Bulldogs righted themselves and won the SEC East for the first time since 2005. They won 10 games for the seventh time in Richt's tenure, which began in 2002.
Georgia is seen as a solid bet to win 10 again, and the defense is the reason. The Bulldogs return 10 defenders who started at least seven games. The offense has more issues. There are questions at tailback and along the line. Georgia also has to rebuild its special teams.
Last season: 10-4 overall, 7-1 in SEC (1st in SEC East; lost to LSU in SEC championship game)
Coach: Mark Richt (106-40, 12th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – G Chris Burnette, G Kenarious Gates (moved to T), WR Tavarres King, G Dallas Lee, WR Malcolm Mitchell (moved to CB), QB Aaron Murray. Defense (10) – CB Sanders Commings, LB Michael Gilliard, LB Amarlo Herrera, T John Jenkins, E Abry Jones, LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree, FS Bacarri Rambo, CB Branden Smith, SS Shawn Williams. Special teams (0) – None.
Fast fact: Last season, Richt became the third coach to win 100 games while at Georgia. The other two were Wally Butts and Vince Dooley; Richt's winning percentage is better than both: 73.6 percent to Dooley's 71.5 and Butts' 61.5.
QB Aaron Murray threw for 3,149 yards and a league-high 35 touchdown passes last season, giving him 59 TD passes in two seasons. He also has run for six TDs in the past two seasons. But Murray also threw 14 picks last season and saw his completion percentage drop two points (from 61.1 percent to 59.1). To be fair, he was working with an inexperienced receiving corps last season, and the completion percentage should climb into the low 60s this fall. But Murray has to cut down on the picks; six of his interceptions came in Georgia's losses.
Murray may be asked to do more this season because there are questions at tailback. Returning starter Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the team during the offseason, and for the second season in a row, Georgia needs a true freshman to be productive. Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley are four-star recruits; Marshall enrolled in January and went through spring ball. Sophomore Ken Malcome and senior Richard Samuel, who also has played fullback and linebacker, are the top returning contenders. But both are limited and don't have the breakaway speed that is going to worry opposing defenses.
The receiving corps looks OK. Georgia's leading returning receiver is Tavarres King, who had 46 receptions and eight TDs. But he is a tier below a true go-to receiver. The No. 2 receiver last season was Malcolm Mitchell, and he was moved to cornerback during the spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley are good complementary receivers, and perhaps senior Marlon Brown, a former four-star recruit, finally will live up to the high school hype. There are high hopes for redshirt freshman Justin Scott-Wesley, a record-setting state sprint champion in Georgia.
TE Orson Charles is gone, and that hurts. He caught 45 passes last season. Junior Arthur Lynch and redshirt freshman Jay Rome are the leading contenders to replace Charles. Lynch has played in 25 games and has two receptions.
The line lost its top three players in C Ben Jones and Ts Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson. The tackle spots look especially precarious. Sophomore Kolton Houston will start at right tackle if he is eligible; he remains suspended after testing positive for steroids, which he took after he had shoulder surgery two years ago. Sophomore Watts Dantzler, who played in three games last season, and true freshman John Theus will be the top candidates if Houston can't play. The left tackle will be Kenarious Gates, who started at guard last season. The new center will be sophomore David Andrews. The guard spots look strong with Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, who started a combined 20 games last season.
The defense is loaded with big-time players at each level: NT John Jenkins, LB Jarvis Jones and FS Bacarri Rambo.
Georgia uses a 3-4 set, and the three starting linemen are all seniors: Jenkins and DEs Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington. Depth is good, too.
Jones is the defensive standout, and he might be the best pass rusher in the nation. He had 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season, his first with the Bulldogs after transferring from USC. Also returning as starters at linebacker are Alec Ogletree, Amarlo Herrera and Michael Gilliard, who had a combined 151 tackles last season. Herrera is expected to be a reserve this fall, and the one new starter should be Chase Vasser, who started three times last season. Depth is excellent. This might be the best linebacker group in the SEC, which means it might be the best in the nation.
The secondary is good, too. Rambo is a fierce hitter who covers a ton of ground. He is coming off an excellent season: 55 tackles, eight interceptions and eight pass breakups. Rambo teams with SS Shawn Williams to give the Bulldogs one of the nation's best safety duos. Williams is another big hitter who led the Bulldogs with 72 tackles; he also had four interceptions and six pass breakups.
The starting cornerbacks will be seniors Sanders Commings and Branden Smith. Commings is a big, physical (6 feet 2/217 pounds) corner who is overshadowed by the safeties, but he is a solid player in his own right. Smith, a former five-star recruit, is a great athlete but never has lived up to his advance billing at corner; he has four interceptions and seven breakups in his career. Mitchell is expected to see a lot of time in nickel and dime situations, and is part of a good group of corners. Depth at safety isn't as good.
The Bulldogs are looking for a new kicker, a new punter and a new return man. True freshmen Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber are expected to win the kicking and punting roles, respectively. Smith has the ability to be a top-flight return man.
The coverage units need a huge upgrade. The Bulldogs truly were awful in covering punts, finishing 116th in the nation, allowing 14.9 yards per return along with two TDs. The kickoff coverage was only marginally better.
Four of the first five games are at home. But the road game in that span is against Missouri in what will be the Tigers' first-ever SEC game. The Bulldogs also match up against Tennessee and Vanderbilt in the first month in big division contests.
Georgia plays three games in October, but none are at home; included are a huge SEC East showdown against South Carolina and the annual bacchanal/bloodletting in Jacksonville against Florida.
Among the games in November are matchups against Auburn and Georgia Tech.
One huge positive for the Bulldogs: They don't play Alabama, Arkansas, LSU or Texas A&M in crossover divisional games.
This is going to be a good team; how good depends on the offensive line.
The schedule is the easiest in the SEC East; not having to play Alabama, Arkansas or LSU might be enough to give the Bulldogs the division title.
At the least, this team should win nine or 10. It also wouldn't be a surprise to see Georgia in the SEC championship game for the second season in a row. But the pick here is a second-place finish in the division.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 9th nationally
The buzz: The Bulldogs signed 19 players and finished 12th nationally in the team rankings. In short, it was another good haul for Richt and company. The Bulldogs kept one of the Peach State's best home when Valdosta Lowndes five-star ATH Josh Harvey-Clemons signed. Harvey-Clemons is a versatile prospect who can play on either side of the ball but likely settles at linebacker. They also dipped into Florida for five-star OT John Theus of powerhouse Jacksonville Bolles. Another signee with potential to make an early impact is Tarboro (N.C.) High four-star RB back Todd Gurley. – Rivals.com
WR Justin Scott-Wesley. Scott-Wesley, a redshirt freshman, may not win a starting job, but based on the improvements he made during the spring, he appears ready to make an impact this fall. His weight became an issue as a true freshman, but he's back down to 215 pounds and ready to go. – Anthony Dasher, UGASports.com
For more on Georgia throughout the season, check out UGASports.com
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