A reasonably anticipatory assessment of the 2010 Bulldogs.
It's a testament to Mark Richt's tremendous success at Georgia that a single 8-5 season – off six 10-win seasons and five top-10 finishes over the previous seven years – can make the natives restless enough to even conceive of a "hot seat." When Richt took over in 2001, the Bulldogs were nearly 20 years removed from their last SEC championship, a drought dating to Herschel Walker's junior year; Richt's charges won the league with a No. 3 ranking in the final polls in 2002, won it again in 2005 and roared to a No. 2 finish in the polls in 2007. He's the longest-tenured coach in the conference, the most successful coach in the country without a national championship and, at 50, still has plenty of time left to get one.
It's no wonder, though, that fans are wondering if the window Richt exploited through his first five seasons has been slammed shut. Since the '05 conference championship, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have revived Florida and Alabama as instant powerhouses, and LSU has added an elusive BCS championship of its own; in Athens, meanwhile, three of the last four seasons have gone in the books as relative disappointments, and the one that didn't (2007) required a second-half surge out of an ominous midseason malaise. No one's job is (or should be) on the line this fall, but five years removed from its last SEC Championship appearance, the program desperately needs a reminder that it's still one of the elites in the conference – for its own piece of mind, and especially for recruits who very soon will not have any recollection of 2005.
What's Changed. If you've spent any time at all in New Defensive Coordinator 101, you know already that the arrival of the new guy inevitably signals a "more aggressive" approach than fans got from the last guy, who had frankly become a little too contemplative for their tastes. Todd Grantham is one of the coaches driving the rejuvenated 3-4 bandwagon, and spent the spring totally revamping the Bulldog D in the image of the scheme he taught as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line coach: Defensive ends Justin Houston, Cornelius Washington and
Montez Robinson [Robinson was kicked off the team last month followin an arrest for domestic battery – ed.] all moved to outside linebacker, along with former running back Richard Samuel; defensive tackles Abry Jones, Brandon Wood and Kiante Tripp all moved outside to defensive end.
With the exception of the explosive Houston (for NFL fans, Houston is an analogue for DeMarcus Ware in the Cowboys' scheme: A dynamic linebacker who's just as comfortable putting his hand down and rushing the passer, Houston's primary role in '09), there's no evidence Grantham's charges are going to bring more rushers or get to the more quarterback more often than they did under departed Willie Martinez. But the palpable optimism for the transition has much less to do with Grantham, anyway, than it does with the fact that he's not Martinez:
Martinez's defenses declined every year following the 2005 SEC championship season, which most UGA fans eventually chalked to the residual presence of predecessor Brian Van Gorder, anyway, as their patience with Martinez – and the lack of subsequent championships – grew increasingly thin. He was persona non grata in most corners of the Dawg Web even before last year's descent into the bottom half of the conference, when the offense had to bail out the D in early shootout wins over South Carolina (41-37) and Arkansas (52-41) and had no hope of keeping pace when it later fell apart against Tennessee (a 45-19 loss) and Florida (41-17).
The collapse in Knoxville, in particular, on the wrong end of a career game by one-time laughingstock Jonathan Crompton, was a sobering rebuke to the status quo. At 3-3, the grumbling began in earnest over the following week, and it was clear Martinez would have to be sacrificed to the New Direction at year's end.
What's the Same. Inconsistent as it was, the offense had its moments, and will open the season as the most intact, veteran unit in the SEC on either side of the ball. Returnees include the top ten running backs and 15 of the top 16 receivers, who combined to account for more than 95 percent of last year's total yards from scrimmage; the starting five on the offensive line has amassed a staggering 128 career starts over the last three years – 142 if you include hard-luck left tackle Trinton Sturdivant, a freshman All-American in 2007 before back-to-back ACL tears to begin the last two seasons – and effectively returns in one piece after allowing the fewest sacks in the SEC.
Junior receiver A.J. Green is the obvious headliner, but the progress of the offense (aside from the new quarterback; see below) will likely hinge just as much on the extent to which a pair of promising sophomores, running back Washaun Ealey and tight end Orson Charles, emerge from Green's shadow as complementary stars in their own right. Like his predecessor, Knowshon Moreno, it took Ealey almost half a season to break into the lineup full-time as a freshman. But (also like Moreno) he provided an obvious spark down the stretch, averaging 105 yards on almost seven per carry over the last five games, including a 183-yard romp in the win over soon-to-be ACC champ Georgia Tech. Off a stagnant October, UGA put up 31 points on Auburn, 30 on Georgia Tech and 44 on Texas A&M en route to a 4-1 finish after Halloween – most of it with A.J. Green on the sideline.
Be the ball. The emphasis on a more "aggressive" approach on defense has an obvious root: Only one team in America (Tulane) forced fewer takeaways last year than Georgia, and only one other (Miami, Ohio) finished with a worse overall turnover margin. Obviously, that tree produced some bitter fruit: The Bulldogs were minus-2 or worse in four of their five losses, and a truly ugly minus-4 in flops against Florida and Kentucky. In the latter case, it was a fourth-quarter interception that set up the Wildcats' go-ahead touchdown "drive" at the UGA nine yard-line, a fumble at the UK goal line that submarined the Bulldogs' best chance to tie with a little over two minutes to play, and an interception at midfield that ended their last-gasp comeback attempt in the two-minute drill. The defense didn't force a turnover in either game.
The good news: A minus-16 margin for an entire season is almost impossible to replicate, especially by a team that recruits SEC athletes – the least they can do is, like, handle the ball, and maybe occasionally fall on it after managing to recover just two fumbles last year by opposing offenses, fewest in the nation. A return to a relatively normal turnover ratio, combined with the atomic leg of All-American punter Drew Butler, should dramatically improve their standing in the never-ending struggle for field position.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. In his attempt to dispel concerns over starting a redshirt freshman quarterback with zero career snaps to his credit, Richt may have become the first coach in history last month to actually encourage fans to feed unrealistic expectations via Internet hype when he suggested they check out a few of Aaron Murray's high school highlight reels on YouTube. Which, yes, are pretty impressive, if you like consistent accuracy on long touchdown throws:
At worst, Murray, one of the most hyped passers in a strong 2009 quarterback class, should be less interception-prone than one-and-done starter Joe Cox, and more accurate in terms of completion percentage (though, on the other end, he's less likely to replicate Cox's underrated penchant for big plays right away). Murray was always going to emerge from the three-way spring competition as the starter.
The bigger concern out of the spring – even bigger than starting a redshirt freshman quarterback with zero career snaps to his credit – was the abrupt departure of Murray's almost equally touted classmate, Zach Mettenberger, after a drunk and disorderly arrest in March, followed by career backup Logan Gray's apparent move to wide receiver as a compromise to prevent him from transferring in search of more playing time. There were literally zero other quarterbacks listed on the spring roster, effectively putting all the eggs in Murray's basket: Depending on how many snaps Gray takes as an emergency backup, incoming freshman Hutson Mason could find himself thrust into the role of de facto insurance policy from day one.
Best-Case. With the wholesale attrition at Florida, the SEC East may be as wide-open as any division in America, and the overall talent level is still on par with an elite handful nationally – the defense could have eight starters and as many as a dozen regular contributors who arrived as members of the blue-chip Rivals250 as recruits. Competent debuts by Murray and Grantham's 3-4 scheme ought to have Georgia very much in the SEC championship mix. Murray will be well-protected, and with Green and Charles at his disposal, the passing game could be fairly explosive if backed by a steady, 1,000-yard effort by Ealey.
The decisive moment, as always, is the dreaded date with the Gators in Jacksonville: The Bulldogs can probably afford to drop a couple games along the way to an Arkansas, Auburn or South Carolina, but as long as one of them isn't the Cocktail Party, they can ride the tiebreaker over Florida to a 10-win regular season and their first SEC Championship appearance in five years.
Worst-Case. "Freshman quarterback" always gets a few stomachs turning, but the most terrifying prospect for the season is continued defensive malaise under Grantham: If the problems there – in the secondary, especially – prove to run deeper than Martinez's oversight, it will stand as much greater indictment against the entire operation as opposed to one bad apple. It doesn't help that there are three new starters in the back four that was victimized on a regular basis with a far more heralded cast in '09.
It's not shaping up as a great year for SEC quarterbacks, but there are certainly enough candidates among Ryan Mallett, John Brantley, Stephen Garcia and Cam Newton to put Murray's back against the wall in another string of shootouts if the secondary fails to emerge from the depths. Another 7-5 campaign, after concerted efforts to reverse the momentum of the last two years, would be an obvious red-siren situation for Richt's future.
Non-Binding Forecast. I'm among the overwhelming majority still conceding frontrunner status to Florida for the division crown, only because there is no obviously compelling reason to overturn the status quo. On paper, though, Georgia can answer the Gators points for point; with hyped new quarterbacks, solid backfields, intact offensive lines and new coordinators revamping defenses with vulnerable secondaries, they're almost mirror images of one another. Florida may get the benefit of the doubt by virtue of its ongoing status as division overlord (three division titles, two BCS titles in the last four years) and its total ownership of the series over the last 20 years. But there is too much talent on hand for Grantham to not get the defense headed back in the right direction, and it won't be an upset by any means to see the Bulldogs back in Atlanta on Dec. 4. UGA fans shouldn't be satisfied with less than a January bowl and a legitimate claim on the frontrunner role with another veteran lineup going into 2011.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.