Last season the Georgia Bulldogs' defense was supposed to be its anchor. Georgia returned 10 starters to a defense that finished fifth in the nation in 2011, yet that unit stumbled to a 32nd national ranking last year.
Georgia's offense, led by Aaron Murray and the stunning freshman tailback duo known as "Gurshall" (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall), helped the Bulldogs break 11 program records and nearly sent them to their first-ever BCS National Championship game.
Because the Bulldogs return 10 starters to the most potent scoring attack in team history, many believe they have a shot at winning the Crystal Ball in 2013.
Critics, however, would cite that if Georgia couldn't play defense with personnel that included Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams and John Jenkins, it can't possibly improve this coming season.
A new defensive coordinator seemed like an easy out of the discussion, but with Todd Grantham turning down a job with the New Orleans Saints earlier this month, Georgia will have to prove his scheme can produce. Grantham has had a roller-coaster stint as the defensive coach for the Red and Black. In 2011, his defense was stellar, as it was at times last season, but 2010 and 2012 saw an underachieving and sometimes clueless group of players.
It can be argued, however, that Georgia's defensive group from last year shouldn't have been that great to begin with. Most of the players were seniors and seen as top NFL prospects, but when you look at recruiting logs from the past, none of those guys were supposed to be that great.
According to ESPN's recruiting rankings from 2008 through 2010, here's where Georgia's 2012 starters ranked nationally:
- Bacarri Rambo (No. 27 ATH))
- Sanders Commings Jr. (No. 29 ATH)
- Cornelius Washington (No. 60 DE)
- Branden Smith (No. 4 CB)
- Abry Jones (No. 22 DE)
- Michael Gilliard (No. 17 OLB)
- Shawn Williams (No. 29 S)
- Alec Ogletree (No. 4 S)
Jarvis Jones and John Jenkins were top-rated transfers from USC and JUCO, respectively. Georgia lost Kwame Geathers to the draft this year despite limited playing time behind Jenkins at nose tackle. Geathers was originally recruited as an offensive lineman.
One could argue that Georgia over-developed its recruits into starters, and that they played very well as a unit, especially in 2011. This defense did show great potential, especially in the big game against Florida.
But the rawness of that talent was exposed against Alabama, as the Crimson Tide's offensive line dominated Georgia's front seven in a way that could be described as unnatural. It was the difference in the game.
Many worry the Bulldogs are in a heap of trouble heading into 2012, with only Garrison Smith, Ray Drew, Amarlo Herrera and Damian Swann returning with starting experience on the defensive side of the ball.
The truth is, not only does Georgia have super star power at all three levels, but the overall talent is much better.
The Bulldogs will field a lot of freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the defensive side of the ball, but if you compare the recruiting rankings to the ones from 2008-2010, the talent is through the roof in comparison.
Based on projections, here's where Georgia's most likely starters ranked in ESPN's recruiting rankings.
- DE Ray Drew (No. 2 DE, '11)
- DT Jonathan Taylor (No. 6 DT, '12)
- DE Garrison Smith (No. 15 DT, '10)
- RE Jordan Jenkins (No. 8 DE, '12)
- LB Amarlo Herrera (No. 9 OLB, '11)
- LB Josh Harvey-Clemons (No. 1 OLB, '12)
- LB Josh Dawson (No. 44 DE, '12)
- CB Damian Swann (No. 9 ATH, '11)
- CB Shaq Wiggins (No. 6 CB, '13)
- S Corey Moore (No. 15 S, '11)
- S Tray Matthews (No. 10 S, '13)
Drew, Jenkins and Harvey-Clemons are all considered game changers and future All-American players.
Replacing John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at the 3-4 scheme's vital nose tackle position won't be much of a chore, either.
On Wednesday, Georgia received a commitment from the most sought-after defensive tackle in the JUCO ranks in Toby Johnson (6'4", 305 lbs.). Johnson will compete with Taylor, John Atkins, and tenured Mike Thornton for that tackle position.
And these starter projections do not include stud recruit Johnny O'Neal (No. 5 ILB, '13), who could easily earn a starting spot. It's also unclear where Harvey-Clemons, Georgia's prize recruit from 2012, will start. He could just as easily earn the top job at one of the safety positions.
Harvey-Clemons and Jordan Jenkins could not be more perfect fits, if not near clones of Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones, respectively. Both of those guys have just as much upside and potential as the men who manned the positions before them.
Fans might be forgiven for forgetting that the "Dream Team" hasn't really hit the field yet—at least, not in its entirety. Offensive members surely have, including Malcolm Mitchell, John Theus and Jay Rome.
With a quarterback as tenured and dominant as Aaron Murray coming back for his senior campaign, next season could be the final year in a national title window that has been open since 2011.
If the Bulldogs want to take advantage of that opportunity, the defense will have to improve from its 32nd spot.
The talent is there to do just that.
Mike Foster is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and has covered high school football and recruiting for the Marietta Daily Journal, Cherokee Tribune and the Tuscaloosa News. He also served as sports editor for the Kennesaw State University newspaper, The Sentinel, for a year and a half.
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