The Georgia Bulldogs are primed for a championship run in 2012. Head Coach Mark Richt may have the most complete team here in his 12th season at the University of Georgia.
The defense is stacked and in good hands in coordinator Todd Grantham’s third year with the program.
The offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions and have one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks under center.
The schedule looks promising by SEC standards.
What will be the telling factors in the Dawgs' championship run? Here is a look at 10 story lines to follow throughout the season.
The story line for the start of the 2012 season will be how Georgia deals with suspended defensive players. Of particular concern is the Week 2 contest against the Missouri Tigers.
AJC.com reports the Bulldogs will be without the services of cornerback Sanders Commings (two games) and linebackers Alec Ogletree (2-4 games) and Chase Vasser (2 games) because of offseason issues.
Safety Bacarri Rambo will also reportedly miss multiple games to start the season, though Richt has been quiet on the details of his suspension.
The Bulldogs should be fine against Buffalo, a Mid-American Conference team that managed only three wins last season. Buffalo will be an important tune up for the replacement players as they look forward to Missouri the following week.
To replace Commings, Malcolm Mitchell—last year’s freshman phenom wide receiver—has shifted to cornerback to help the depleted secondary. Though he spent the entire spring and fall working with the defense, Mitchell will see action on both sides of the ball this season depending on the need.
Richt was quoted on AJC.com via Chip Towers in reference to Mitchell, “He’s a great competitor. He loves practice, he loves preparation, he loves to win the drill no matter what it is. He loves the challenge of learning a defense, so he won’t have any trouble there. He has great change of direction, he has good ball skills, he’s muscled up since he’s been here. He has a lot of great tools to be a great cornerback.”
Expect sophomore Damian Swann to also chip in and help out at cornerback during these suspensions.
Replacing the suspended Vasser will be a bit more of a challenge for the Bulldogs. Sophomore Ramik Wilson is listed behind Vasser on the depth chart, but converted defensive ends Cornelius Washington and Ray Drew could also help fill in at the OLB position for the first two games.
Probably the hardest to replace will be senior All-American safety Bacarri Rambo. Sophomores Corey Moore and Conner Norman are listed as second string safeties, but Damian Swann could also take some reps at safety.
Also, five-star recruit Josh Harvey-Clemons has practiced at safety and the nickel cornerback positions.
The Missouri game will be a tester for the Dawgs as they deal with these suspensions. It's a similar situation to last year when injuries forced new players to start at linebacker at the beginning of the season.
Because of the playing time afforded to Michael Gilliard and Armarlo Herrera, UGA ended up with a ton of depth at linebacker, one of the strongest positions on the Bulldogs' defense in 2012.
If Georgia can get past Missouri, the secondary could be loaded with depth moving forward.
The Bulldogs Lose Senior Center and Captain Ben Jones
The biggest question mark for the Bulldogs coming into 2012 is the offensive line. The Dawgs lost the anchor of the line for the last four years, senior Ben Jones, to the NFL.
Georgia also got bad news this offseason as projected starter Kolton Houston is still ruled ineligible to play because of a banned substance still in his system from the treatment of a high school shoulder injury in 2010.
David Andrews will be the new starter at center. Andrews appeared in 10 games as a freshman in 2011, but will make his first start in the season opener versus Buffalo.
Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee combined for 28 starts last season. Watts Danztler rounds out the O-Line for the Bulldogs.
Make no mistake, this is an inexperienced bunch, no seniors at all, with razor thin depth. Offensive line coach Will Friend will have a challenge juggling these guys to get them in the best spots. This unit will have to learn fast.
The silver lining is they’ll be protecting Aaron Murray, who has enough experience reading defenses and dialing up the right protections. That will at least put them in a situation to succeed, but execution will be up to them.
Another positive, incoming true freshman John Theus looks like a beast and should compete for playing time in 2012.
Tyrann Mathieu returns a punt for a touchdown in SEC Championship Game
Georgia was absolutely horrible last season on kick coverage. According to CFBStats.com, UGA was 87th in the country in kickoff return yards, including two returned for touchdowns.
Georgia also ranked an abysmal 116th in the nation in opponents’ punt return yards, averaging nearly 15 yards per punt. They also gave up two touchdowns on punt returns, including one to former LSU player Tyrann Mathieu in the SEC Championship Game.
The Bulldogs have to be better covering kicks in 2012 or it will almost certainly cost them at least one game.
One bright spot is an NCAA rule change that will move the kickoff from the 30 to the 35 yard line. Touchbacks will come out to the 25 yard line instead of the 20. The rule change is designed to encourage more touchbacks as kickoff returns are statistically when most college players are injured.
If Georgia can’t get better and covering kickoff returns, at least there should be a lot more touchbacks. The Bulldogs won’t have to cover as many returns, either.
Although, after last season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see opponents try to bring the ball out anyway until the kick coverage team proves they can stop big returns.
Freshman Marshall Morgan Looks to Take Over Placekicking Duties for the Dawgs
Georgia lost their starting placekicker, Blair Walsh, and punter, Drew Butler to the NFL after last season.
According to ESPN’s DawgNation, Mark Richt said that the position battle is ongoing, but the frontrunners are kicker Marshall Morgan and punter Collin Barber, both freshmen. Richt also said, however, that punter Adam Erickson and kicker Jamie Lindley could see action this season as well.
Whomever is out there for the Bulldogs will have some big shoes to fill with the departures of Walsh and Butler. Only time will tell how the kicking situation will work itself out in 2012.
Despite losing 2011’s leading rusher in Isaiah Crowell after he was dismissed from the team during the offseason for felony weapons charges, Georgia looks to be loaded, if not necessarily proven, at running back.
Richt said redshirt sophomore Ken Malcome will likely get the start in the season opener against Buffalo. Malcome is in his third year at Georgia and by all accounts has had an outstanding spring and fall camp.
Veteran leader Richard Samuel will also be appearing in the backfield for the Dawgs, most likely splitting time between tailback and fullback. Samuel will mostly be used in short-yardage, power situations.
Though Malcome is the likely starter for the season opener, close on his heels will be two highly touted incoming freshmen in Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. Marshall and Gurley made a pact to play college ball together and Georgia fans couldn’t be more thrilled to have them both in Athens.
Gurley has been absolutely dazzling in fall scrimmages so far and is already being compared to Trent Richardson by teammate Shawn Williams. While that may be a bit much, look for huge contributions from both Gurley and Marshall this season.
With four quality backs, they will be constantly pushing each other to excel and you can bet that whoever is in the backfield will have earned it.
Aaron Murray already cemented himself in Georgia history by setting the school record with 35 passing touchdowns a season ago. However, he also threw 14 interceptions and completed less than 60 percent of his passes. So there is some room for improvement.
Expect that improvement in 2012. In fact, bank on it.
Murray’s doing all the right things to make himself better in 2012. He spent extra time with his receivers over the offseason to make sure they’re in synch right away. Murray’s time spent studying film borders on obsession.
Most importantly, he’s committed to winning above all else. In an article by David Ching of DawgNation, Murray is quoted as saying, “That's all that matters: winning. I want to be considered one of the best in Georgia history. I've got to win games and lead this team to victories and championships if I want to do that.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has been highly criticized for his play calling for the past few seasons. Most notably, the flat performance of the Georgia offense in last year’s season opener versus Boise State was largely blamed on Bobo’s conservative play calls, and probably rightfully so.
This season, however, with a veteran quarterback in Murray, expect Bobo to open up the playbook and get more aggressive with his play calling. If not, the pressure will only increase from the Georgia fan base to at least remove Bobo from the offensive coordinator position, if not fire him outright.
It seems unlikely that Bobo would lose his job altogether because he is a great recruiter and has proven himself as a premier developer of quarterbacks. If the offense fails to be productive in the few big games Georgia has this year, expect some loud grumbling from the Bulldog Nation.
I know, I know. One win isn’t really a streak. But with a 2012 victory in Jacksonville, Georgia will have beaten Florida two years in a row for the first time since a three-game winning streak from 1987 through 1989.
In fact, if history repeats itself, this should be the beginning of a two decade run of dominance by Georgia. During the 70s and 80s, UGA posted a 15-5 record versus Florida. During the 90s and first decade of the new millennium, the Bulldogs have gone just 3-17 versus the Gators.
With a win this year, the momentum will swing back to the Bulldogs and they can start to put together an actual streak.
Again, two straight victories isn’t much of a streak, but Georgia needs to put a stop to SC’s two-year run, now. The last time Gamecocks beat the Dawgs three years in a row was in their dreams. It’s never happened and the Bulldogs can’t have it this year.
Georgia does NOT need to get back into the habit of losing to Steve Spurrier. Georgia fans had enough of that during the Old Ball Coach’s tenure at Florida. Make no mistake, Spurrier loves to take UGA to the woodshed. Georgia simply can’t let Spurrier get on a roll again.
More importantly, this could very well be the game that decides the SEC East in 2012. Yes, Georgia could lose this game. There could be a repeat of last year when SC swept the East but didn't make it to Atlanta because of two losses to SEC West teams. But no true Georgia fan really wants that.
The Bulldogs need to beat the best and run the table on the way to Atlanta. That really boils down to getting the job done against the Gamecocks in Columbia.
Georgia should be favored in every game this season, with the possible exception of South Carolina, and certainly has a fantastic chance to run the table all the way up to the SEC Championship Game.
There are, of course, trap games along the way. Think Missouri at home in their inaugural SEC game. Tennessee is never really an easy game for the Dawgs, and UT has a penchant for upsetting heavily favored Bulldog teams.
Likewise, no matter how the teams look on paper, the Florida game is always a struggle for the Dawgs.
This year will be even more exciting than usual, assuming Georgia continues to win, because every game might as well be a playoff game. The Dawgs can settle for nothing less than a W every week if they want a shot at a national championship.
With UGA’s perceived weak schedule, even a one-loss SEC Champion Bulldog team may not get the nod to the BCS Championship Game if there’s even two other one-loss teams from the ranks of USC, Oregon, Oklahoma, Michigan or Florida State.
If Richt is finally going to get that elusive national championship with the Bulldogs in 2012, there is no margin for error. This should be fun to watch.