SDS will be taking an early look at each SEC Championship contender and their chances of winning it in Atlanta by listing three reasons why they will win and three reasons why they will not.
Georgia opens in the SEC East as the favorite to get back to Atlanta to take on an SEC West team again. The Bulldogs return a very potent offensive attack and what could be the best defense in the country. Mark Richt has one of his best teams returning that he’s had during his tenure, and there is much anticipation in Athens and around the SEC for the Bulldogs. No different than any year, but this could be the year, if Georgia is ever going to take that next step and win a championship under Richt. When you’re Georgia, you are expected to compete for not only SEC Championships but national championship as well.
Three Reasons Why
1. Schedule: Steve Spurrier knows the No. 1 reason Georgia is a favorite to contend for an SEC Championship is because the Bulldogs boast the easiest schedule in the SEC. Spurrier’s team, of course, doesn’t have the luxury of playing Ole Miss and Auburn for cross-divisional games. But Mark Richt does. UGA plays three cupcakes – Buffalo, FAU and Georgia Southern – along with only three to four teams that will be ranked in the top 25 to start the year off in South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. Georgia plays at South Carolina, Missouri and Auburn as the three road games that will be a fight. The good thing for the Bulldogs is the toughest three-game stretch comes against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and at South Carolina, and the Bulldogs also don’t have to travel two weeks in a row the entire season. Ten wins should be a goal that should be rather easily accomplished. Georgia is no doubt capable of going undefeated during the regular season and squaring off against the West in Atlanta. The big game to keep an eye on will be the Florida game in week nine in Jacksonville.
2. Defense: Two words that come to mind when thinking about this defense are ‘more physical’. Georgia hasn’t really been physical on defense since Brian VanGorder left Georgia for the NFL. But defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has this defense flying to the football and being physical at the point of attack, and it does help that he has the best linebacker in the country in Jarvis Jones. Jones led the SEC in sacks a year ago with 13.5. Georgia, as a team, was sixth in scoring defense and fourth in total defense in the SEC. Against the run, Georgia’s opponents only averaged right around a respectable 101 yards per game, and the Bulldogs were second to only Alabama and LSU in that category. Grantham’s 3-4 defense starts with big John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers in the middle. Both are 350-plus and clog up holes in the middle. Abry Jones, Garrison Smith and Cornelius Washington will be the staples at end. Washington really came into his own last year, and I look for him to be a prime player this year. Seasoned veterans in addition to Jones at linebacker are Michael Gilliard, Christian Robinson and Alec Ogletree, and they all complement one another very nicely. If not for some early-season suspensions in the secondary, this unit would probably be dubbed the top defense entering 2012, and they likely are anyway. Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings and Branden Smith are all suspended for at least the first two games, and because of the suspensions, the secondary could be susceptible early on. Overall, this defense is ready to get theirs in 2012, and this unit will have a very big say on how well the team finishes in the SEC.
3. Aaron Murray: I might take some heat for listing Murray as a reason the Dawgs can win the SEC. Some say he hasn’t lived up to the potential, quick to scramble out of the pocket and has a long way to go to be a leader. And I do agree with all of that, but why can’t this be Murray’s year? The junior amassed over 3,000 yards passing and 35 touchdowns last year. Some are quick to point out his 14 interceptions, and that is of concern. He has to limit his turnovers and make better decisions. But that’s part of progressing and being a quarterback in the best defensive league in the country. And the beautiful thing about it is that Murray has had a full off-season to get better and watch a lot more film to get him to where he needs to be. The physical tools are certainly there. He has a good arm, good speed and has a high ceiling as a quarterback and as an athlete. I look for Murray to take a bigger step at becoming a better quarterback in 2012. He has all the tools necessary to lead Georgia back to Atlanta and actually get a W this time.
Three Reasons Why Not
1. Offensive Line: The biggest hole on the Georgia roster is at offensive line. Particularly when you lose three starters at any position it hurts, but it’s tougher to overcome on the offensive line. Early on during the spring, the young line was totally dominated by the bigger, stronger defensive line. That’s to be expected. Kenarious Gates and Chris Burnette had the best springs among the group. Kolton Houston is finally eligible this fall after being ineligible last year because of an unspecified NCAA issue, and Houston should start at right tackle. David Andrews will be the likely center, and Dallas Lee will play guard. And help is coming in the fall with one of the top high school linemen in the country entering school in John Theus. Theus will contend for a starting spot immediately. While there are big bodies and some depth among this group, they really have no proven players. This was a great spring for the linemen, not so much performance-wise, but having to go against John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers and the rest of the line made this group stronger physically and mentally. Now this group has to translate that to performance in the fall.
2. Mike Bobo: There I said it. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo takes the most heat of any player or coach at Georgia. And the criticism sometimes is very deserving. Bobo’s offenses have been criticized for being too vanilla, and most defenses can see what’s coming at the line of scrimmage. They call very few misdirection plays, and the conservative calling is making the Bulldog nation anxious. It seems Georgia’s offense has lost all element of surprise with Bobo at the helm, and that’s one reason the running game has been largely ineffective. Sure, against teams like Coastal Carolina and New Mexico State, UGA puts up very crooked numbers. But against better defenses in the SEC, the offense seems to putter, and very little rhythm is sometimes seen. Georgia is very good, with good skill positions all over the field, but teams have to mix up the offensive play calling to win some games, too. Against lesser teams, you can line up and run the same play all game. But against better teams, the vanilla offense struggles. This is the year Bobo can silence his critics and make fans forget the past. Bobo has the most to gain, and most to lose, of any assistant coach in the SEC this year.
3. Running Back: This position was sitting pretty a few weeks ago before Isaiah Crowell was dismissed. It was Crowell leading the way in what looked like would be his best season, after a great off-season. That’s obviously out the window. Let’s look at the facts. Georgia has a bunch of really unproven guys at the position. And it’s a very good thing they recruit the top running backs around the country every year. Sophomore Ken Malcome returns to lead this group, along with senior Richard Samuel. Malcome only had 42 carries last year, and Samuel only rushed for 240 yards. As unlikely as it might seem, former walk on Brandon Harton has the most rushing yards returning with 247. But freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley will be forced into the limelight quicker than anyone anticipated. Marshall enrolled early; so, he has the leg-up on Gurley, but Gurley could have the highest ceiling of them both. I think you’ll see all five guys play until Georgia feels comfortable with one starter. It’s a definite area of concern, but losing Crowell didn’t break the Bulldogs’ season by any means. It just gives another talented back a chance to step up.