THE LINGERING QUESTION: Can the Bulldogs run the ball? True freshman TB Isaiah Crowell arrives with a ton of hype, but he will be running behind a line with three new starters. In addition, there is no proven wide receiver, which means opposing defenses likely will be more than willing to crowd the box.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Sophomore QB Aaron Murray becomes a full-fledged star, Crowell lives up to the hype and the run defense improves, to the point where the Bulldogs win 10 games, take the SEC East and return to a Jan. 1 bowl.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The revamped offensive line doesn't provide any room to run, Crowell is stifled and the passing game suffers as a result. Meanwhile, the rebuilt linebacker corps falls on its face, and a 0-2 start sends the Bulldogs spiraling out of control. They reach a bowl, but it's another minor one and Richt can't survive the cries for his job.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: The improvement in turnover margin was huge last season (from minus-12 in 2009 to plus-10 last season), but the won-loss record didn't reflect it. This season, it will be important to watch the rushing attack. Georgia hasn't ranked higher than third in the SEC in rushing since 2005 and has ranked seventh or worse three times in the past five seasons. Given the questions surrounding the passing attack, the Bulldogs' goal should be 160 yards per game, a figure they've reached just three times in the past nine seasons.
OVERVIEW: Coach Mark Richt and coordinator Mike Bobo prefer a pro-style attack and use a variety of formations. The base, though, features a fullback and a tight end. This season, they have - on paper - the best quarterback in the SEC in sophomore Aaron Murray. But the line is in flux, there is no established go-to receiver and freshman wunderkind Isaiah Crowell looks as if he will be the tailback. Bobo's job performance this season is directly tied in to Richt's future as coach.
BACKFIELD: Murray did a nice job as a redshirt freshman last season, throwing for 3,049 yards, 24 TDs and eight interceptions. He completed 61.1 percent of his passes and showed that he has the potential to be an All-SEC performer. He's mobile and has a nice arm, and despite his inexperience last season, he generally avoided the killer mistake. A 3-to-1 TD-to-interception ratio as a freshman in the SEC is big-time stuff. He'll be under a lot of pressure this season because he is the only established skill-position player. Crowell will be in the spotlight from the first day he steps on the practice field. When he signed in February, the Bulldogs had three upperclassmen tailbacks set to return this season. That number has been reduced to one, junior Carlton Thomas, and he has been suspended for some early-season games. Leading returning rusher Washaun Ealey decided to transfer after spring drills, and Caleb King - the No. 2 rusher last season - flunked out over the summer. Crowell was expected to play this fall; now, he is expected to start the opener against Boise State. Junior Richard Samuel was moved back to tailback from linebacker over the summer, and he at least provides a veteran presence. But Samuel has not truly produced in the past, and if the Bulldogs have to rely on Samuel for the bulk of their ground game, they are in trouble. Redshirt freshman Ken Malcolme is a physical presence and should see time. Thomas is a scatback type who can provide a change of pace, but his size (5-7/169) precludes him from being an every-down back. Former TE Bruce Figgins is expected to start at fullback. Figgins, a senior, is a good blocker but not much of a receiver.
RECEIVERS: A.J. Green left early for the NFL, and he is a huge loss. Kris Durham also is gone, and what's left are a bunch of guys who seem best-suited to be No. 2 or 3 receivers. It wouldn't be that big a surprise if junior TE Orson Charles, who played with Murray in high school at Tampa Plant, leads the Bulldogs in receiving. Charles has good hands and the speed to get deep down the seam; he had 26 catches last season, and that number likely doubles this fall. Junior Tavarres King seems likely to become the go-to wide receiver. He has 47 career catches, and his 20.1-yards-per-catch career average shows he can get deep. But can he consistently produce? Junior Marlon Brown was a huge recruit in the 2009 class, but he has just 13 career catches, and if he doesn't play well this fall, he officially will be considered a recruiting bust. Junior Rantavious Wooten seems best-suited as a slot receiver in a spread attack, and his quickness might come into play this fall. Expect as many as five freshmen - redshirt and true - to get every opportunity to produce. Redshirt freshman Michael Bennett and true freshman Chris Conley did some good things during spring ball. Two other true freshmen, TE Jay Rome and WR Marcus Mitchell, played together at Valdosta (Ga.) High, and both should see the field this season. Mitchell also can play cornerback, but he likely will be a receiver for the Bulldogs.
LINE: This is a mystery unit. T Trinton Sturdivant blew out his knee during spring drills and seems likely to miss the season, which means three starters from last season are gone. But the two remaining starters - C Ben Jones and T Cordy Glenn - have All-SEC potential. Jones is going to be a four-year starter, while Glenn is making the move from guard to left tackle to replace Sturdivant. Glenn also is going to be a four-year starter, but he hasn't played tackle regularly since high school. RT Justin Anderson started his career on the offensive line, then moved to the defensive line in the spring of 2010. He moved back to offense this spring. Sophomores Chris Burnette and Kenarious Gates are the projected starters at guard. Depth is a huge question, as every projected second-teamer is an underclassman without much experience.
OVERVIEW: Coordinator Todd Grantham arrived from the NFL after the 2009 season and switched the Bulldogs to a 3-4 scheme. The run defense got appreciably worse (to 147.2 ypg from 126.2 ypg), but the Bulldogs forced 14 more turnovers than they did in 2009 and had a plus-10 turnover margin one season after having a minus-12. Grantham seems to like this season's line much more than last season's, but the play of the linebackers - three of the four starters from last season are gone - ultimately will determine how good this defense can be.
LINE: The Bulldogs had problems against the run last season; for the most part, opponents that made it a priority to run were able to do so. Georgia allowed 23 rushing TDs and the line was pushed around at times. Grantham obviously is hoping that won't be the case this season. NTs Kwame Geathers and Jonathan Jenkins, a touted junior college transfer, look as if they can be effective run-stuffers. DeAngelo Tyson, who played nose tackle last season, is expected to start at end this season, and he should be able to hold up at the point of attack better than last season's ends. The other starting end should be Abry Jones, a part-time starter last season who had 16 of his 34 tackles against Georgia Tech. Jenkins' arrival is huge - literally and figuratively. He's a big guy (6-4/340) and his presence means Tyson can move to end, where he can be more effective.
LINEBACKERS: The Bulldogs are going to miss Justin Houston, who was their best pass rusher (he had 10 of their 24 sacks). ILB Christian Robinson is the Bulldogs' leading return sack man, with two. The other inside 'backer is Alec Ogletree, who made 34 tackles last season as a true freshman backup safety. His speed is expected to come in handy at his new position. The guys who must step up are OLBs Jarvis Jones, a Georgia native who began his career at USC, and Cornelius Washington. A 3-4 needs outside linebackers who can pressure the passer, but the Bulldogs don't have a proven performer at the position. Depth is a question, and some true freshmen will play. Ray Drew is a touted pass rusher who will make the move from high school end to college outside linebacker. He was the No. 9 player nationally in the 2011 recruiting class.
SECONDARY: This should be a solid unit. The Bulldogs had 16 interceptions last season, and all four players who had at least two are back. Senior CB Brandon Boykin had 44 tackles and three interceptions, and he should be an awards candidate this season. Still, he needs to be more of a defensive playmaker, as he has just nine pass breakups in his career. Junior Sanders Commings is the other starting corner, and junior Branden Smith - a former five-star recruit who hasn't lived up to the hype - is the No. 3 cornerback. Bacarri Rambo moves from strong safety to free safety; he's a big hitter who had three interceptions and three forced fumbles last fall. The new strong safety is junior Shawn Williams, who was an important reserve last season. Depth at safety looks fine, one reason the Bulldogs were able to move Ogletree to linebacker.
Meet the best kicker/punter duo in the nation in K Blair Walsh and P Drew Butler. Walsh, a senior, was 20-of-23 last season, including a 53-yarder, and is 55-of-68 for his career. He also has 33 touchbacks on kickoffs in his career and has kicked at least two field goals of at least 50 yards each season. Butler's dad, Kevin, was an All-American at Georgia and a longtime NFL kicker. Drew, a senior, might be the nation's best punter. He averaged 44.5 yards per punt last season and has a career average of 46.1 yards. Thirty-nine of his 109 career punts have traveled at least 50 yards. Boykin has a shot at All-America honors as a kick returner. He averaged 24.3 yards per return last season, with one touchdown; he has four career touchdown returns and a career average of 25.2 yards. Coaches plan to use him on punt returns this season, too, though Smith has shown he can be a dangerous punt returner. The coverage units were superb last season, making this the best special teams unit in the nation.
the recruiting side
Average national rank past 5 years: 8th
The buzz: Coming off a subpar season, Georgia needed to score big on the recruiting trail and it did just that. Dubbed "The Dream Team" by the Bulldogs' coaching staff, this class has a little bit of everything. Georgia landed two five-star prospects. One of them, TB Isaiah Crowell, seems likely to start this season. The other, DE-turned-LB Ray Drew, likely needs a little time. Georgia did its most impressive work at home. Nineteen of the Bulldogs' 26 signees come from the Peach State, including big-time TE Jay Rome. - KEITH NIEBUHR
It will be Crowell. Or, rather, for the Bulldogs' sake, it had better be Crowell. He rushed for 1,721 yards and 18 TDs as a high school senior at Columbus (Ga.) Carver, and he has to produce right away for Georgia. In just a few months, tailback went from a position that could be a strength for the Bulldogs to one that's a huge question. As noted earlier, Crowell - a five-star recruit who was the No. 4 running back nationally - was going to play this fall. Now, it's seemingly a foregone conclusion that he will start. He has the highest ceiling - by far - of any tailback on the roster.
The Bulldogs are coming off the worst season of the Richt era, and everyone will find out quickly if there is any carry over. Georgia opens with Boise State in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, then has a huge SEC East showdown the next week at home against division favorite South Carolina. In October, there are games against Mississippi State (which beat Georgia last season), Tennessee and Florida. Auburn looms in November, but that one is at home. The Bulldogs miss the two best teams in the West (Alabama and LSU).
Richt has had great success, but the Bulldogs have lost 12 games in the past two seasons; the last time that happened was in 1995-96. In addition, the seven losses last season were the most for the Bulldogs since 1990. The offense has potential because of Murray, and the defense should be at least as good as last season. But will the rushing attack come around? And can Georgia stiffen against the run? Richt is on the hot seat, but the schedule is conducive to a solid season. And given that the SEC East is in flux, Georgia has a legit shot at the division title, even with all its questions.
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