The expectations of Georgia will be sky high next year after two consecutive disappointing seasons in Athens. Head Coach Mark Richt will likely have to rally the players to win nine to ten games next year in order to quell the uneasy boosters and fan base. One bad season, ok it happens, two bad seasons is a trend; three is grounds to be shown the door.
With that said, I believe Georgia will win the SEC East in 2011. Here’s why…
1. The Schedule
For the first time in a long time, UGA will have seven true home games; plus the annual trek to Jacksonville; and the game with Georgia Tech in nearby Atlanta. Dawg fans will definitely cut down on their fuel expense next year. New Athletic Director McGarity is a UGA alum but he cut his Assistant AD teeth under Florida’s Jeremy Foley who has a much different scheduling philosophy than the prior Georgia AD. I know these schedules are set years in advance but with McGarity on-board, the future schedule will more closely mirror Florida’s home heavy schedule. Damon Evans’ goal was to spread the UGA brand far and wide, hence the games scheduled with Arizona State, Colorado, Louisville, Oklahoma State and the since canceled home-and-home series with Oregon. It was nice for the fans to make the trips and see UGA play some interesting match up’s, but the costs outweighed the benefit with a loss.
2. Favorable SEC West Opponents
The SEC uses a 5-2-1 schedule format. Every team plays the five other teams in their division, plus a rotating two from the opposite division and one permanent team from the opposite division. UGA has Auburn on its schedule every year. UGA’s rotation this year from the SEC West includes Ole Miss and Mississippi State; no LSU, no Alabama, no Arkansas. Not to insult the teams UGA does have to play, but this is the most favorable West schedule UGA can get.
3. Open Date Prior To Florida Game
The very first thing Steven Orr Spurrier did when he became the Florida coach at Florida was lobby the SEC schedule office to get an open date before UGA. Florida has been on an 18-3 run ever since. This year Alabama had six conference opponents with open dates prior to playing the Tide; you know how their season has gone thus far. Any open week is important, but especially so when it’s the week before a team UGA has consistently under performed for. The extra week should allow injuries to heal, extra practice on Florida’s spread option game and probably more importantly, the mental sense of an edge on the Gators.
4. Key Players Returning
Georgia is losing six defensive players and four offensive players on their two-deep roster. This may sound like a lot but consider this year the offense had ten players coming back. The only exception was Redshirt Fr. Aaron Murray replacing Joe Cox at QB. The offense has performed well this year, with five games in a row scoring over thirty points. Despite remaining relatively healthy, it wasn’t the dominant force it was capable of. The last two years have seen many injuries along the offensive front; the good to come from this is plenty of the backups got full speed snaps during the year. In most cases the O line was a rotation of players to keep fresh legs in the game, so there is a lot of SEC game experience coming back.
QB Aaron Murray has played far better than expected and has been compared to former UGA QB David Green, which is high praise indeed. The main running threats Washaun Ealey and Caleb King will return, in addition to Ken Malcome who will push those two for early playing time. All the tight ends will be back and as I’ve said many times before, UGA has the best TE’s in college football. UGA used to be known for putting TE’s in the NFL. Randy McMichael comes to mind. If Georgia can get the TE’s more involved in the offensive scheme, it should be a banner year. All the WR’s and Split Ends will be back save for Senior Kris Durham. UGA’s offense will not be the source of concern next year.
On the Defensive side, newly hired DC Todd Grantham will have another spring and summer to get the 3-4 defense installed. He will have players at his disposal more suited to this style of defense. Interestingly, UGA’s defense is ten points better than last year and two weeks ago was actually the SEC’s best run defense. The secondary is the main area of concern. I’d like to chalk some of the questionable play up to being new to the defensive scheme, but too many breakdowns seem to be player desire, not scheme. Bacarri Rambo in particular has had too many lapses, but leads a young and hopefully up and coming secondary. Next to last in SEC pass defense just has to get better. Freshmen Alec Olgetree is a beast who should profit from another year playing at this level. He very well could end up being a Thomas Davis/Greg Blue type player.
I do have to mention the players that might not be coming back, AJ Green is sure to dip his toe in the NFL waters and be moving on. DE Justin Houston is another underclassman who is looking to play on Sundays very soon. Losing those two will hurt UGA on both sides of the ball.
UGA is lucky to have two of the very best kickers in college football returning. PK Blair Walsh and Punter Drew Butler, the 2009 Ray Guy award winner, make up a solid special teams unit.
UGA is coming off some very frustrating years. Since the high of the 2008 Sugar Bowl and the crushing defeat of 41-10 of Hawaii, UGA has underperformed. An initial #1 ranking in 2008 led to a disappointing 10-3 season with embarrassing losses vs. Alabama and Florida, plus losing for the first time in eight years to hated rival Georgia Tech ‘tween the hedges. A 7-5 campaign last year and fighting for bowl eligibility this year has the natives restless in Athens. Mark Richt is allowed a few seasons of mediocrity due to his early success the first 10 years at the helm. Three SEC championship game appearances, two SEC titles and wining 90+ games will buy you some insurance. I look to the promise of a more physical spring and summer practice schedule; Richt getting more involved in the play calling and the defense improving with a another year under its belt.
Georgia will go through bad stretches just as any team will, remember Alabama was 6-6 just three years ago. I guess the question is, has Georgia gotten that bad or has every team around them gotten better? I believe Richt will find a way to right the ship with a more hands-on approach and win the SEC East in 2011. Remember you heard it here first…..