The Georgia Bulldogs enter the 2009 season after a disappointing campaign last year that started with a preseason No. 1 ranking. Still, Mark Richt led Georgia to another 10-win season and New Year's Bowl—feats most programs would be overjoyed with.
Gone are two first round draft picks in QB Matt Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno. UGA will have some new faces in key positions, so to get a better understanding of their prospects, I spoke with Get The Picture, a funny and insightful Bulldog Blog.
Compare this offseason to last year's. Is the mood around the program more relaxed this year, not being preseason No. 1?
I'm not sure that I'd use the word "relaxed." I don't think the team chemistry issues last year were due to anxiety, but rather to a lack of focus and discipline. We've heard a great deal from both the coaches and players this offseason about how they've learned from last year's mistakes and are determined to correct them.
And in terms of off the field problems, this has been a remarkably quiet year so far, which you'd like to think bodes well. What that translates into on the field is anybody's guess, of course.
Enlighten us on Joe Cox. Where can he be better than Matt Stafford?
Better? Honestly, I'm not sure. Matt's 2008 season statistically speaking was the best of any of Richt's Georgia quarterbacks, by a pretty wide margin. Joe certainly doesn’t have Matt's arm (who does?). But I remember how Stafford followed up what had been to that point his best game of the year at Baton Rouge with his worst at Jacksonville and think that Joe may bring more consistency to the position.
There are also intangibles like leadership and chemistry that we won't be able to judge until we see how it plays out on the field. To me, the big question here is how well Mike Bobo manages Cox's skill set.
Who are the leaders in the running back battle? Are we going to see a running back by committee?
To answer your questions in reverse order, yes, barring a rash of injuries, Georgia will rely on three backs, at least early on.
Going into preseason practice, Caleb King was the designated front runner, but his injury has opened up the door for Richard Samuel, who has looked good in two scrimmages. Carlton Thomas has impressed enough to gain a spot as at least a change of pace back, and King will be in the picture again once he's healthy.
It's hard to say how it ultimately shakes out, because Richt wants his tailbacks to be versatile in the passing game, both as receivers and in pass protection. The players that excel in those areas will have a leg up on the competition.
Who steps up opposite A.J. Green to prevent him from getting double-teamed?
In the beginning, nobody. Don't get me wrong, there's a good bit of talent at the receiver position, but it's largely unproven. Georgia's going to have to rely on scheme to free up Green, something it sounds like the staff has been working on in these practices.
I also think Richt would love to be able to deploy four- and five-receiver sets on occasion to get single coverage for Green. Whether he's got the offensive line to do that is one of the big questions going into the season.
Five starters return on the line. What are you expecting from this unit after a few years of turnover and lack of depth?
In my mind, Georgia's season is going to come down to line play, on both sides of the ball. Stacy Searels did a remarkable job last year with what he had to work with, given the injuries, but the line also got help from Moreno's uncanny ability to avoid the big loss and from Stafford's quick release and field awareness. If this year’s group holds its own, it’ll pay big dividends in the passing game.
The tight end position, which has been a strong suit in the Dawg attack under Richt, virtually disappeared last year. Much of that was because of the need to use the TEs for additional blocking support. If the line play frees them up and puts them in play as receivers again, that’s a huge offset to the loss of Stafford's arm.
UGA ranked last in SEC play in sacks. Does the defensive line have an edge rusher this year?
It had better find one, that's for sure. Much of the decline on defense last year can be traced to the absence of a consistent pass rush from the ends. If they don't come up with the guy or guys to generate pressure from that position this year, it's hard to see how things improve a great deal on that side of the ball.
There are promising candidates, but really, we're not going to know until we see them in action.
Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez took a lot of heat at the end of the season. Is it a scheme problem or the players not executing?
There's nothing wrong with the scheme that a consistent pass rush from the front four couldn't fix. It’s the same scheme, with a few wrinkles, that [Brian] VanGorder ran with great success during his tenure in Athens.
My knock on Willie is two-fold: He’s not the strongest at in-game adjustments, and his teams don’t display the best fundamentals. Those were areas that Georgia always excelled at under his predecessor.
That being said, you can't blame the coaches completely for players being out of position or not caring enough to tackle properly.
How do you feel about opening the season at Oklahoma State? Do you think UGA is over-scheduling with the SEC slate they have to face?
Mine may be a minority opinion, but I think Georgia tends to thrive when it has a challenging opener. And if you've got a team that’s been battling focus issues, there’s hardly a better way to address that than with a tough opening game. So I like it.
As for over-scheduling...eh, maybe. Georgia Tech's on the schedule no matter what. However, Tennessee Tech is hardly a challenge, and I suspect that Arizona State is somewhat overrated this year. And who knew when the game was originally scheduled that OSU would be a preseason top 10 team this year?
Does Georgia get back on a winning streak this year against Georgia Tech?
I thought Paul Johnson was a terrific hire at the time it was made. Offensive scheme aside, he's just a better college football coach than the guy he replaced. So I think the days of seven-game winning streaks are at an end for Georgia.
On the other hand, like it or not, there’s still a talent gap, especially on defense, that Tech’s never going to be able to close completely. I think that comes into play more so at the end of a season, when injuries take their toll.
Talk of defensive coordinators "catching up" to Johnson’s triple option misses the point, in my opinion. What’s going to happen going forward is that Tech's scheme is going to be respected and approached far more seriously than it was last season. Johnson has coached with great success at Navy and Georgia Southern, but his teams at those places never faced the speed and strength of D-I defenses week after week like Tech’s does now.
All of which is my long-winded way of saying, any-given-Saturday considerations put aside, yes, I like Georgia's chances in Atlanta this year, especially with Georgia Tech’s losses on the defensive line.
Where do you see the Bulldogs finishing up record-wise?
I'm always reluctant to predict season records this early. There are still position battles to be resolved, and we don't know how the two deep is going to shake out in certain key areas.
But I will say this: The pundits have tended to overlook how well this program has recruited in the past five seasons and, for all the focus on the non-conference schedule, have perhaps not paid enough attention to the facts that outside of Florida, the SEC East is the weakest it’s been in years and Georgia only faces one of the big three from the SEC West, LSU (and that game is in Athens).
I'm thinking right now that, at worst, there won’t be any more losses than there were in 2008.
My Thoughts on Georgia...
I think Senator Blutarsky and I are in agreement on a lot of things. Georgia has a lot of holes to fill on offense, but they have recruited very well the last few years, so talent is there. I don't think the offense will be as explosive as it was last year, but it can still be a good one if the offensive line comes through.
The biggest need will be to replace Moreno, who was so good at pass blocking and receiving out of the backfield. The O-line finally has some depth, so it will be interesting to see how improved they really are.
Defensively, it again does not look like UGA has a top-flight pass rusher this year, but Marcus Howard came out of nowhere a few years ago. They get two former starters back in DT Jeff Owens and LB Marcus Washington from injury a year ago.
Bulldog fans need to hope Martinez figured out a better way to defend spread offenses, as Florida, Kentucky, and Georgia Tech ate up the Bulldog defense at the end of last year.
The schedule is probably the toughest in the SEC with three BCS teams in the non-conference, two on the road. Richt is very good in opposing team's stadiums, so don't count them out against in Stillwater, even with a new QB. They get a bye before Florida, which greatly helped in their 2007 win, and like Blutarsky said, they have a manageable slate against the West.
Georgia seems to thrive when expectations are down, and I think they have a better than expected year.
9-3, 6-2, New Year's Day Bowl
Best Case Scenario: 10-2
Worst Case Scenario: 8-4
Win Total: 8
Thanks again to Get The Picture for their insight.