The least you should know about the 2011 Bulldogs. Part of SEC Week.
• Big Man On Campus. Most of the preseason hype has been reserved for All-Universe running back recruit Isaiah Crowell, and it's not hard to see why under the circumstances. Quarterback Aaron Murray got more airtime in 2010 as Nick Fairley's personal punching bag in a 49-31 loss to Auburn than as a breakout passer, a predictable fate for a redshirt freshman whose team opened 1-4 in a conference that also featured a) The eventual Heisman Trophy winner, b) A future second-round draft pick and c) A would-be Rhodes scholar with a BCS championship ring at the same position — all for teams that spent nearly the entire season in the top 15 of the national polls.
But Murray more than held his own statistically, completing upwards of 60 percent of his passes with three times as many touchdowns (24) as interceptions (8) and the highest pass efficiency rating in the country for a freshman. And despite his non-NFL-friendly size (officially, Murray checks in at 6-foot-1, 211 pounds), he tied Ryan Mallett for the SEC lead and finished in the top 10 nationally with 35 completions covering at least 25 yards. He finished with the second-best yards-per-completion average in the conference, behind only Cam Newton.
If that seems like lofty company for a guy at the helm of Georgia's first losing season in 15 years, consider that Murray was generally pretty good even when the team was bad: He passed for at least 250 yards with an efficiency rating of at least 130 (a hair above the national average) in four of the Bulldogs' six regular season losses, and delivered three touchdown passes in each of the high-scoring defeats against Colorado, Florida and Auburn. Consider also that the UGA defense allowed 30.6 points per game in those six losses, while the offense scored at least 24 in four of them, and you can understand why Murray is a popular choice as the best returning passer in the SEC.
• A little help? Of course, it's no coincidence that Georgia's early misfortune changed with the return of spectacular receiver A.J. Green from a four-game suspension that cost him the entire month of September. Before his return, the Bulldogs averaged 14 points over the course of a three-game losing streak in their first three SEC games; after, they averaged slightly over 35 points in the process of going 5-3 over their last eight, including 40-point outbursts against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Georgia Tech. That crutch is long gone now, and while junior Tavarres King and Orson Charles are athletic, reliable targets, they're not going to do anything like this to bring in a jump ball — that is, with Green, Murray could sometimes get away with balls thrown "in the vicinity," but the margin of error narrows considerably anytime a playmaker of Green's caliber (not to mention three starting offensive linemen) exits the premises.
The other blaring red siren on offense is the embarrassing, 10-6 Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida, which played out like a slow-motion, three-hour car crash. Murray hit the wall personally with two interceptions, zero touchdowns, only one completion covering more than 20 yards and a meager 88.5 efficiency rating — the first time all season he finished with a rating below 130. It was his only truly bad game, but coming as it did on the heels his best game — a 15-of-19, 272-yard, three-touchdown effort in a 42-34 win over Georgia Tech — it was a mystifying regression.
• Get back to where you once belonged. The Bulldogs finished in the top 15 nationally in both scoring and total defense three years in a row under coordinator Brian Van Gorder from 2002-04, and in the top 20 on both counts under successor Willie Martinez from 2005-07. Surprise: Those six seasons produced five outright or shared division titles, five top-10 finishes and two SEC championships.
The three seasons hence: With virtually identical numbers from the offense —scoring, yardage and pass efficiency averages over 2008-10 are slightly better than the averages from 2002-07 — the defense's steady descent into the middle of the pack has left head coach Mark Richt and the fan base alike grasping for a spark that even Green wasn't able to give them the last two years. Crowell's advance hype suggests he could be that guy, maybe right away. But even if he is, who is that guy on defense? With disruptive pass rusher Justin Houston gone a year early to the NFL, no Georgia defender showed up as a first-team pick on the coaches' preseason All-SEC team, and only two (defensive tackle DeAngelo Tyson and cornerback Brandon Boykin) appeared on the second or third teams. Sophomore linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree and massive juco transfer John Jenkins bring first-rate talent to the front seven, but not much significant experience, and it's hard to argue talent has ever been an issue.
Right now, the status quo on offense is enough to win the division. But the first go-round under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was nearly identical to the effort that got Martinez fired a year earlier, and the record will only come around when the defense stops running in place.
• Match point. After three straight seasons of progressive disappointment, Richt brokered improbable optimism in February by signing a blockbuster recruiting class and vowed that he would approach his tenth season in Athens feeling "revived as a coach." That momentum could multiply or backfire quickly: Like last year, the Bulldogs' course will be largely set in the first six games, especially the season opener against Boise State in Atlanta and the SEC opener against South Carolina a week later. Georgia could conceivably come out of those game 2-0 and looking like a serious frontrunner in a wide-open division, or 0-2 and on the fast track to a December coaching search.
If the momentum goes south again in another early slide, there's no time to recover with Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee right around the corner and Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech still waiting down the stretch. Those are going to be meaningful games one way or another, but whether that meaning is defined by opportunity or desperation will be clear very quickly.