It's been a weird week in the land of the Red and Black. Georgia had its tail handed to it by LSU in the SEC Championship Game this past weekend, losing 42-10, but a stout first half of play from Georgia's young pups gave Dawg fans a glimpse of what could be a very bright future between the hedges.
Mark Richt, according to the school's athletic director, Greg McGarity, is slated to keep the position as the head coach at the University of Georgia. Richt, who was on the proverbial "hot seat" heading into 2011, has all but erased the presence of naysayers in the wake of a 10-3 campaign, which included a 7-1 SEC record.
Instead, Richt's successful recruiting tactics, featuring a "Dream Team", "All or nothing" pitch to prospective players, has resulted in numerous commitments from some of the premier players in the state of Georgia—as well as in the southeast—during the past few years.
Richt's latest recruiting win was yesterday's commitment from Keith Marshall of Raleigh, N.C. The 5'11", 190 lb. tailback is considered by most scouting services to be the top player at his position, as well as one of the premier players in the country.
Marshall's commitment can be credited to the fact Georgia had major depth problems at tailback this season. With suspensions and injuries being a constant theme of the 2011 backfield, Marshall could actually be a starter during his freshman campaign. There's no doubt he will not be redshirted, but rather will wear a red jersey.
This is where fans might be blinded by just how good of a situation this is. Isaiah Crowell, last year's No.1-ranked high school running back in the country, was named SEC Freshman of the Year despite countless criticism from fans.
The harsh feedback regarding Crowell's freshman season focuses on his seemingly heady attitude, as well as a habit of taking himself out of games. Fans wanted to see a tougher Crowell, but what they saw was a player that was obviously getting a rude introduction to SEC football.
Yet, he still rushed for 847 yards on 182 carries (4.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers for any true freshman tailback.
With Marshall entering the mix, Georgia fans seem to have immediately given up on Crowell. This reaction is completely unwarranted and foolish. Crowell is young and must mature as a person, but it's hard to imagine him going down the same path that former running backs Caleb King and Washaun Ealey did.
Most of Crowell's issues during the year were injury-based, not conduct-based. He was a darn good contributor while on the field.
Georgia will see game-changing depth at the tailback position next season. Without Crowell, Georgia's running game had to rely on Carlton Thomas (5'7", 163 lbs.) and former walk-on Brandon Harton (5'6", 174 lbs.).
With those two players in the game, Georgia spent much of its time throwing from the shotgun formation. Luckily, Aaron Murray, who threw for a team record 33 touchdowns this year, was on target during the second half of the season (when the tailback position was at it's worst).
Aaron Murray is undoubtedly one of the SEC's best quarterbacks, and many think he will be on the early Heisman watch list during the 2012 preseason.
Murray, who will be a junior next season, had a 3-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2011. He finished with 2,861 yards passing and a quarterback rating of 146.4.
He isn't a beneficiary of sitting back and slinging the ball around against weak opponents, either. Murray impressed onlookers this year because of his toughness and his ability to extend plays and make big-time throws when needed.
He actually might have looked best during the first quarter of the SEC Championship Game. Unfortunately, receivers Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell dropped sure touchdowns during that stretch.
Despite untimely drops in the biggest game of the year, Georgia fans have to be excited about the receiving corps. Many thought the Dawgs' weakest position would be receiver, following the departure of A.J. Green.
Instead, Georgia's receiving group actually got better. Stars emerged to the point that former 5-star receiver Marlon Brown went from a sure starter to tertiary member of a receiver-by-committee system.
True freshman Malcolm Mitchell was undoubtedly the most impressive, and Georgia fans believe he was actually more worthy of getting SEC Freshman of the Year.
Mitchell caught 38 balls for 614 yards, averaging 16.2 yards per catch, and four touchdowns. This was despite missing nearly half of the season with a hamstring injury.
Other freshman receivers to step up included Michael Bennett (redshirt freshman) and Chris Conley.
Bennett added 31 catches and five touchdowns, while possibly being Murray's favorite target in key situations. Bennett's big frame makes him a tough guy to stop, even when he's covered.
Conley came on strong during the second half of the year, mainly because of depth issues with Mitchell's and Rantavious Wooten's absences.
Conley is expected to become more of a weapon—and eventually a starter—for the offense in the coming years.
Wooten, who missed nearly the entire season with a head injury, is tabbed to return along with Tavarres King and Brown. King, quietly, was still Georgia's top pass catcher, hauling in 41 passes for a team-leading seven touchdowns.
Georgia will have to wonder whether or not Orson Charles, considered to be one of the best tight end prospects in this year's draft, will stay in school.
Charles could very well leave, along with fifth year senior Aron White. Georgia will be in good shape with Charles gone, however.
If Charles does in fact leave, the door will open for former 5-star recruit Jay Rome.
The Dawgs will have to worry about their offensive line, especially the depth. Center Ben Jones and tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson will be gone, leaving room open for a heap of current and oncoming freshmen to take over.
Georgia should feel comfortable with the returns of Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee's. Gates and Lee flip-flopped one of the starting guard positions during the year.
One of the three mentioned above could make a move to center or tackle, which would not be surprising, considering how much Georgia's offensive line has been a game of musical chairs in the past few seasons.
Watts Dantzler, who will be a redshirt freshman, is sure to be in the mix for one of the tackle positions. Dantzler brings a giant, 6'7" frame to the line. He could be the guy to protect Murray's blind side in 2012. Georgia will also feel confident with the arrival of true freshman tackle, John Theus. Theus is one of the top recruits in Georgia's class, so far.
Getting the right pieces in place on the offensive line will be Georgia's No. 1 concern this offseason.
The Dawgs won't have to make the same claim about their defensive line. In fact, the entire defense should be one of the best, if not the best, in the nation.
Georgia will only lose cornerback Brandon Boykin and defensive end DeAngelo Tyson. Their depth on defense will be solid.
Christian Robinson, formerly known as the quarterback of the defense, actually saw his playing time decrease during the year because of the emergence of Michael Gilliard. Gilliard combines with Alec Ogletree to create a fast, fleet-footed and athletic middle linebacking corps.
The outside linebacker position will see the return of one of the nation's best in Jarvis Jones. Jones finished with 19.5 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks in his first year as a Dawg. As a redshirt sophomore, he is eligible to leave for the NFL Draft, and many NFL teams would love to have him in a few months.
But Jones has already, on multiple occasions, said he plans on returning to Georgia next year. His attitude should keep some other NFL prospects from leaving as well, including safety Bacarri Rambo.
Rambo, who finished with seven interceptions this year, received first-team All-SEC honors, along with Jones, a few days ago.
He is joined at the safety position by Shawn Williams, who stepped in and became one of the most impressive and hard-hitting defenders on the roster.
The cornerback position will see Sanders Commings start for the third year in a row, while Branden Smith will finally get his chance to be the primary corner.
The highly recruited and regarded Damian Swann, an upcoming sophomore, should be in the mix for a starting job as well.
With big men like John Jenkins, Abry Jones and Kwame Geathers returning to the defensive line, the front seven should be just as solid next season.
Garrison Smith, who impressed against Georgia Tech a few weekends ago, could be next in line to fill Tyson's role.
Cornelius Washington will return at the other outside linebacker position, but many agree that an additional offseason for former 5-star recruit Ray Drew should shake that position up.
Special teams, ironically, turned out to be Georgia's weakness in 2011, despite it being tabbed as the best units in the country.
Blair Walsh struggled mightily in the kicking game, as did Drew Butler with his punting. Punt coverage was a major issue that must be addressed, and Brandon Boykin—to everyone's surprise—failed to return a kickoff for a touchdown during his senior season. Boykin has four career kickoff-return touchdowns, an SEC record.
The punter position will likely be filled with a new name, and there are multiple kicker recruits coming in in this year's class.
Overall, Georgia should only lose six key players from this year's team. Many would argue the replacements, which have been waiting in the wings, will be even better.
Georgia's 2012 schedule isn't very daunting either. Non-conference games include Georgia Tech, Florida Atlantic, Buffalo and Georgia Southern.
The only tough games on the schedule will be the road test at Alabama, and road games at South Carolina and in Jacksonville against Florida.
Georgia should be favored to win every game it plays except the Alabama game. It could lose that game, win the rest and still sneak through the SEC title and into the national championship.
Expect most pundits and preseason publications to give Georgia a 10-2 or 11-1 season next year, and probably a Top 10 ranking.
As many stated during the year, the 2011 campaign had a lot of odd similarities to 2007. This also implies that 2012 could be filled with just as much hype as 2008, when Georgia went from being the No. 1-ranked team in the country to playing in the Capital One Bowl.
This team isn't full of big heads like the 2008 team was, however, and it should gel more and more during the offseason.
Now that Richt is off the hot seat, it's time for the Dawgs to start shooting higher. With the youth and talent that Georgia has in place, and recruiting momentum that is seemingly picking up again, it's evident that the window of opportunity for a national title has opened back up in Athens.