There’s a great read this morning – a roundtable with several Bulldog bloggers looking at the 2011 season. We didn’t participate, but I’ll take a crack at the questions anyway. You’re probably thinking about a lot of these same questions, and it’s a good way to start getting the pump primed for the preseason.
1- Which game is more critical for Georgia to win: Boise State or South Carolina?
Clearly South Carolina. There will be the national spotlight and the whole tone-setting angle on the Boise game. Fine, I buy that. But it’s still not a conference game against one of the likely contenders for the divisional title. Put it this way – a loss to Boise still leaves the conference crown and a BCS bowl on the table (just look at Boise’s first victim last season). A loss to South Carolina after beating Boise not only takes away much of the momentum from a big season-opening win; it also puts the Dawgs in a big hole in the SEC East race just two weeks into the season.
2- Other than Isaiah Crowell, which incoming freshman do you think will have the biggest impact in 2011?
While I’m looking forward to the Bulldog Nation getting to know Ray Drew, he’s not my answer. Jenkins isn’t a freshman, so he doesn’t count. When you talk about freshman impact, you have to consider both talent and opportunity. There are a lot of talented guys in this class, take Jay Rome for example, whose impact might not be needed right away thanks to decent depth at certain positions. I’m going to give three answers at two positions where Georgia might have no choice but to play freshmen. Malcolm Mitchell at receiver is one, especially if no one steps up among Georgia’s thin receiver corps. There are also depth and injury issues at safety, meaning one or both of Corey Moore and Nick Marshall could see a lot more than typical reserve duty. With Ogletree moving to linebacker, the Dawgs lack a standout safety, and there is real opportunity for a significant impact from a true freshman.
3- Who are some under-the-radar guys that you think will step up for Georgia this year?
I’d really like to see Abry Jones at defensive end take a step forward. Jones has been a contributor since his freshman year, so it’s not as if he’s been a non-factor. The defensive front could initially be a little crowded, especially if the massive line of Jenkins-Geathers-Tyson takes shape. But Jones is right there and should be able to provide a credible counterpart to Tyson when only one of Geathers or Jenkins is in the game. DE in a 3-4 scheme isn’t much of a high-profile position, but you can’t have effective linebackers without them. Jones won’t have double-digit sacks or anything, but if he improves this year you’ll see it when linebackers start having a lot more room to make plays.
Marlon Brown isn’t exactly under-the-radar among Georgia fans, but Georgia desperately needs at least one guy to increase his production at receiver. Brown, as a junior, is moving squarely into the now-or-never time of his college career.
I’m also interested to see something from the underclassmen offensive linemen. The departure of Boling (and now Sturdivant and Harmon) has started the transition between one wave of linemen and the next. After this year’s senior class, there are plenty of questions about the next group. Guys like Long, Burnette, Lee, and Benedict all have at least a year in the program now; for some it’s their third season. Injuries have been a problem, and fans have to be a little nervous whether some of that group will contribute. When the call came last year, it was Kenarious Gates who stepped up as a true freshman. With the relative lack of depth on the line this year, it’s likely that the Dawgs might need someone else from the underclassmen to step up. Who will it be?
4- What makes you most excited about seeing Georgia play this year?
The individual opportunities. There’s foremost a big opportunity for redemption across the board. It’s a pivotal season for Mark Richt who has a serious downturn to correct. A defense justifiably labeled as soft has an offseason of improved conditioning and another year of familiarity with the scheme. A sophomore quarterback returns from a freshman season in which he did almost everything except win big conference games.
There are plenty of team opportunities too. The conference schedule is as favorable as it gets. That of course doesn’t necessarily mean wins, but Georgia’s record could easily flatter the Bulldogs if they bring an improved team into 2011. The SEC East also appears up for grabs with no clear-cut favorite among as many as four teams. The prospect of getting back to the Dome for the first time in six seasons has to make any Georgia fan excited.
5- What makes you the most nervous about seeing Georgia play this year?
Not only did Georgia go 6-7 a year ago, they lost a good bit of talent to graduation and the NFL Draft. A couple of sub-par recruiting classes are coming home to roost, and so the Dawgs will be thin at several positions.
You can’t look at the Georgia offense and not wonder how they’ll score. The quarterback is fine, but he’ll be protected by a line that’s been thinned out by injury and attrition. The next wave of linemen have also been slowed by injury. The tailbacks will feature a senior still waiting for his signature season and a true freshman on whom so many hopes have been placed. Can Crowell be durable enough to have an impact the entire season? The returning wide receivers – all of them – had a combined 48 catches a year ago. Georgia is strong at tight end, but how many passing games are carried by the tight end position?
There are reasons why Georgia went 6-7 a year ago, and it’s putting a lot on a very good recruiting class to lead the turnaround. If Georgia is much better this year, it will be because several veterans have improved. That means fewer missed tackles and blocks, more catches, and a stronger 4th quarter from players who struggled at times in those areas last year. On top of it all, you have the coaching staff last seen laying up on an early 4th and 1. There have been plenty of signs of their displeasure with last season, but are things too far gone?
6- Athlon Sports has rated the Dawgs at #14 and Phil Steele has them at #9 in their pre-season polls. Both have Georgia winning the SEC East and playing in the Capital One Bowl. What needs to happen for Georgia to live up to these lofty expectations.
It starts at home. Georgia’s home slate features two of the biggest swing games of the year. Beat South Carolina and Auburn, and you figure the Dawgs should be the quality of team that can come away with the division title and a high ranking even if they falter in the Dome or continue to roll over in Jacksonville. But the Dawgs haven’t had an unblemished home record since 2003.
While Georgia’s biggest stars (Murray, Charles, and – yes – even Crowell) are on offense, the key to Georgia recapturing some of its glory will lie with the defense. Big improvements are expected in the second year of Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme, especially with the presence of a proper nose tackle. Georgia scored at least 27 points in their final eight regular season games of 2010, yet they lost three of them. With a questionable passing game and the running game in the hands of a true freshman, there’s even more pressure for the defense to have the kind of dramatic improvement that can carry the team to meet those expectations.