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Georgia fielded arguably its two worst teams of the Mark Richt era in 2009 and '10 and still managed to beat Georgia Tech, though the margins of victory were much slimmer than they were in the early years of Richt's tenure. Whatever else Georgia fans would like to believe about their superiority over their in-state arch rivals in terms of talent, recruiting, tailgating or whatever else, Tech isn't an automatic win anymore. And after giving up more than 1,000 net rushing yards in three meetings against Paul Johnson's triple-option attack, it's clear that the Dawgs need to get a lot better on defense if they are to enjoy those nice comfy wins once again. In a season with a fairly wide-open SEC East race, it'd be a shame for the Dawgs to bounce back from last year's losing record and win the division, only to stumble on the Flats and end the regular season with a loss.
BETTER KNOW THE YELLOW JACKETS
Coach: Paul Johnson, 26-14 in three seasons at Georgia Tech, 133-52 overall
Last season: 6-7, 4-4 ACC Coastal (3rd); lost to Air Force 14-7 in the Independence Bowl
Returning starters for 2011: 12 (six offense, five defense, one special teams)
Key returners: RB Roddy Jones, OG Omoregie Uzzi, LB Julian Burnett, LB Steven Sylvester
Key losses: QB Josh Nesbitt, RB Anthony Allen, LB Anthony Egbuniwe, CB Dominique Reese
Best-case scenario: With another year of experience in Todd Grantham's system behind them and a lot more beef up front, the Georgia defense stifles the triple-option, while Aaron Murray goes to work on the rebuilding GT secondary and keys the Dawgs' 10th "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" victory in their last eleven tries. There's precedent for that -- two years ago, in what would turn out to be Willie Martinez's final game as defensive coordinator, the Dawgs faced a Tech team that later won the ACC title and held them to just 205 rushing yards, their third-lowest total of the season. Granted, that squad was able to run Tech off their own field with huge rushing performances from Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, but while one-half of that tandem may be gone, Aaron Murray is probably the best quarterback the Jackets will face all season, and he'll be throwing against a secondary that's replacing all four of last year's starters. The Jackets have just as much work to do on defense as the Dawgs, if not more, to win convincingly and make a statement in this rivalry.
Worst-case scenario: The Dawgs get outcoached and outhustled in the trenches once again and cough up a loss in another season-ending shootout. Since Paul Johnson came to town, this game has averaged 72 total points, and it's clear the Dawgs have a lot of work to do to keep the Jackets' ground game in check. We've heard a lot of talk about how much bigger, smarter, and better-conditioned the Dawgs' defensive front is this year, but we won't know for sure until they start playing, and Tech's deceptive running attack is specifically designed to grind out clock and wear out opponents. Twice in the last three years the Dawgs have seen a healthy lead crumble in the second half, so let's hope that better training and conditioning has made them more capable of standing firm in the fourth quarter.
By the time the weekend before Thanksgiving rolls around, we'll know what kind of Georgia team we're dealing with in 2011. We'll also know whether they have a shot at the SEC East title, and if they do, Kentucky figures to be one of the most pivotal games on the schedule. Last year's easy 44-31 win notwithstanding, the Wildcats can't be taken for granted -- they've lost a lot of their playmakers on offense but have still managed to beat Georgia twice in the last five years. The Dawgs can't afford to look ahead to either Georgia Tech or a potential SEC title engagement in Atlanta before they welcome the Wildcats to town.
BETTER KNOW THE WILDCATS
Coach: Joker Phillips, 6-7 in one season at Kentucky
Last season: 6-7, 2-6 SEC East (5th); lost to Pittsburgh 27-10 in the BBVA Compass Bowl
Returning starters for 2011: 17 (six offense, nine defense, two special teams)
Key returners: QB Morgan Newton, OG Larry Warford, WLB Danny Trevathan, SS Winston Guy
Key losses: WR/RB Randall Cobb, RB Derrick Locke, QB Mike Hartline, DT Ricky Lumpkin
Best-case scenario: The Dawgs stay focused and clinch their first SEC East title since 2005 with a dominating defensive performance. The battle for the trenches will be challenging, as Kentucky's O-line returns four of last year's starters, but behind them the talent level is limited. Not that Morgan Newton isn't a versatile, physically gifted player, but there's nobody back there who's proven he can match Derrick Locke's running threat, nor anyone with Randall Cobb's combination of speed and shiftiness.
Worst-case scenario: A low-scoring defensive struggle goes Kentucky's way after the Dawg defensive front fails to make a critical stop late in the fourth quarter. Offensively, the Wildcats may be rebuilding, but defensively they're as experienced as any team in the SEC. And if points are at a premium, the Georgia defense can't afford to whiff on a single stop. Unfortunately, last year's game saw the Dawgs give up one third-and-long conversion after another -- the main reason for their two-TD win was a festival of Kentucky turnovers at inopportune times -- and the secondary simply has to get better at making stops in those situations if the Dawgs are to improve upon last year's 6-7 record.
Georgia-Auburn has always been one of the friendlier SEC rivalries on the Dawgs' annual slate, but you wouldn't have gotten that impression toward the end of last year's game on the Plains. A blatant illegal hit by Nick Fairley, a retaliatory gesture by the Georgia offensive line, a near-fistfight in the closing minutes . . . and, of course, it didn't help that Auburn won by 18 and roared to a national title behind a couple of the more controversial players of the 2010 season. Georgia won't be able to exact their revenge against Fairley or Cam Newton this year, as both players parlayed superb junior seasons into first-round selections in the NFL draft. Unfortunately for Auburn, that's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of missing players this year -- between early departures, graduations and offseason dismissals, the Tigers return less starting experience than any other team in the country, and it's not even close. A perfect time, then, for Georgia to get their revenge and earn a critical late-season win.
BETTER KNOW THE TIGERS
Coach: Gene Chizik, 22-5 in two seasons at Auburn; 27-24 overall
Last season: 14-0, 8-0 SEC East (1st); beat South Carolina 56-17 in the SEC Championship Game; beat Oregon 22-19 in the BCS National Championship Game; ranked 1st in the final AP poll
Returning starters for 2011: 6 (three offense, three defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: RB Michael Dyer, RB Onterio McCalebb, DE Nosa Eguae, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen
Key losses: QB Cam Newton, DT Nick Fairley, OT Lee Ziemba, C Ryan Pugh
Best-case scenario: The Dawgs retain vivid memories of the second-half punishment they received from the Tigers last year and rain fire on Auburn's decimated defense, while a front seven that's much bigger and tougher than last year's manhandles the Tigers' inexperienced offensive line and holds Dyer and McCalebb in check. The personnel losses on the Auburn side are really quite astounding -- Eguae, a sophomore, is now the grizzled veteran of the front seven, while the offensive line loses more than 130 career starts with the departures of Ziemba, Pugh and guard Mike Berry and may only have 15 total among their starting five this season. In a season when the SEC East is still very much up in the air and the Dawgs might still be in the running for the division crown in November, this sets up as a great opportunity for a big win.
Worst-case scenario: The more experienced Georgia D still can't keep Gus Malzahn from hanging another fat point total around their necks and the Dawgs go down in an upset. Sure, that might seem far-fetched at a time when Auburn has just lost a once-in-a-generation superstar, but consider that in Malzahn's first year on the Plains, he resurrected an Auburn offense that had gone in the tank under Tommy Tuberville and guided them to a second-place finish in the SEC in total yardage -- with Chris Todd as his quarterback. Granted, he had a much more experienced offensive line to deal with, but the way Auburn has recruited the last couple seasons, he isn't going to lack for raw talent. If the Dawgs can't corral Dyer and McCalebb any more soundly than they did some of the better tailbacks on their schedule last year, this will be a dogfight even with the Tigers limping in undermanned.
Come November 5, the Dawgs will either be celebrating a rare win over Florida in Jacksonville (and praying it portends a historical shift in the Georgia-Florida rivalry) or wailing and gnashing their teeth with fear that yet another rookie Gator head coach is going to continue their inexplicable losing streak in Jacksonville. What does all this have to do with New Mexico State? Not a thing, really. The Aggies, who haven't had a winning season since the last time Georgia played them in 2002, are little more than a light scrimmage between the Cocktail Party and the Dawgs' season-ending stretch run.
BETTER KNOW THE AGGIES
Coach: DeWayne Walker, 5-20 in two seasons at New Mexico State; 5-21 overall
Last season: 2-10, 1-7 WAC; finished 8th
Returning starters for 2011: 16 (seven offense, seven defense, two special teams)
Key returners: RB Kenny Turner, RB Robert Clay, KR Taveon Rogers
Key losses: RB Seth Smith, WR Marcus Allen, CB Davon House, TE Kyle Nelson
Best-case scenario: The Dawgs shrug off whatever happened in Jacksonville, win or loss, and pound NMSU into submission. Let's don't beat around the bush here -- New Mexico State is a baaaad team, having averaged fewer than three wins per season since head coach Tony Samuel was fired in 2004, and they haven't beaten a BCS-conference team in more than a decade. Last season they ranked in the nation's bottom 10 in nearly every defensive category, and in total yardage and scoring offense to boot. If the Dawgs play up to their potential, Todd Grantham's defense will look like the second coming of the Steel Curtain, and Hutson Mason will be subbing for Aaron Murray early in the third quarter.
Worst-case scenario: Whether hung over from a win in Jacksonville or bummed out from yet another loss, the Dawgs play distracted, hold a tenuous lead at halftime, and don't really start putting the Aggies away until midway through the third quarter. The precedent is there for such a thing -- four years ago, Georgia came home after knocking off Florida in the infamous End-Zone Celebration Game only to find themselves in a shootout with Troy (which they won 44-34). Granted, Troy is a dramatically more talented team than NMSU, but the Aggies have just enough talent at running back and on special teams to make it a longer day for the Dawgs than they'd like. A good kick return here, a long, grinding drive there and all of a sudden Dawg fans are wondering why it's the third quarter and they're only up by nine or 10 points. This game won't test the Bulldogs' physical talents much, but it will test their focus.
In 2002, finally freed from the tyranny of Steve Spurrier, Georgia went down to Jacksonville hoping to make a statement that things had changed in the Georgia-Florida rivalry . . . and lost an ugly game to Ron Zook. Three years later, a Bulldog team heading toward an SEC title returned to Jacksonville to face a Gator team struggling with the transition to the spread offense . . . and lost an ugly game to Urban Meyer. Time and time again, the Dawgs have had a chance to reverse their inexplicable recent fortunes in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, only to screw it up and hand another victory to the hated Gators. Now, with Florida being led by a first-time head coach (a Georgia grad, no less) and the Gator program in a bit of disarray, Georgia has a chance again . . . but will they take it?
BETTER KNOW THE GATORS
Coach: Will Muschamp, first year
Last season: 8-5, 4-4 SEC; finished 2nd in the SEC East
Returning starters for 2011: 13 (seven offense, six defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: RB Jeff Demps, WR Trey Burton, DT Omar Hunter, QB John Brantley
Key losses: C Mike Pouncey, CB Janoris Jenkins, WR Carl Moore, OG Maurice Hurt
Best-case scenario: Aaron Murray heads an uprising against the depleted Florida defense and leads the Dawgs to an emphatic victory, signaling a shift in what has been a one-sided rivalry for two decades now. Last season excepted, one of the common threads running through Georgia's string of losses in Jacksonville is that they just can't seem to score any points. This year, though, Florida returns only two starters in the back seven, and probably their best defensive player, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, was just kicked off the team for a third marijuana arrest. Granted, Florida still has an incredibly physically gifted stable of athletes back there, even if they're not the most experienced, and a Will Muschamp defense is never something to be taken lightly. But with the Florida offense adding a total overhaul under Charlie Weis' pro-style scheme to their list of recent upheavals, the time is right for Murray to show there's a new sheriff in town.
Worst-case scenario: The running game continues to struggle, the entire offense has another one of its familiar Jacksonville mental meltdowns, and Muschamp's defense dooms the Dawgs to their third loss in their last 22 tries against the Gators. It's become a depressingly familiar script by now, but the fact is the Gators have had a mental hex on the Dawgs for a while now, one that Murray and the coaching staff will have to prove they can break. No question, the Gators are a team in transition at the moment, but that didn't seem to matter against the Dawgs in 2002 or '05, and those were two of the best teams Mark Richt has fielded in Athens. A squad coming off a 6-7 season and still struggling to put the right pieces in place on defense simply can't take anything for granted here.
Bobby Johnson never succeeded in turning Vanderbilt into a powerhouse, but by the latter half of his career in Nashville, he'd at least turned the Commodores into a team too dangerous to overlook. After a pair of 2-10 seasons, though, Vandy appears to have regressed to doormat status, and it hasn't helped that they're now on their third coach in three years. Former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin has taken the reins from Robbie Caldwell, who stepped in after Johnson's abrupt retirement in the summer of 2010. Franklin inherits an experienced roster, but that roster has all of one SEC win to its credit over the last two seasons, so an immediate turnaround doesn't appear likely in Nashville.
BETTER KNOW THE COMMODORES
Coach: James Franklin, first year
Last season: 2-10, 1-7 SEC; finished 6th in the SEC East
Returning starters for 2011: 21 (11 offense, eight defense, two special teams)
Key returners: RB Warren Norman, LB Chris Marve, TE Brandon Barden, CB Casey Hayward
Key losses: DT Adam Smotherman, QB Jared Funk, C Joey Bailey
Best-case scenario: Georgia stomps Vandy badly enough that Aaron Murray is sitting on the bench sipping Powerade midway through the third quarter. Hey, even last year's Georgia team managed to pound the Commodores 43-0 -- they should be able to pull off a similar feat this time. If the Dawgs can beat Vandy and Tennessee and get revenge against either South Carolina or Mississippi State, they'd likely be no worse than 5-2 (4-1 in league play) heading into the bye week, with all five games left on the schedule being winnable.
Worst-case scenario: The Dawgs slog around for four quarters and escape Nashville by the skin of their teeth, picking up another SEC win but inspiring little confidence as they prepare for a late-season stretch that includes Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech. In their current state, Vandy doesn't look like much more than a tune-up, but the current state of the program is such that Mark Richt can ill afford getting played close in games his team should be putting away early. If Georgia doesn't enter the Vandy game holding a winning record, a blowout win may be vital to restoring some morale and confidence as the Dawgs head into a late-season schedule loaded with bitter rivals.
For the entirety of the 1990s, the Dawgs couldn't buy a win in the Georgia-Tennessee series; now, at least, the rivalry has gotten competitive again, but unfortunately that's because both once-proud programs are struggling to keep their heads above water in the SEC. Two years ago, Georgia went to Knoxville and got humiliated by Lane Kiffin's Vols; last season, Tennessee came to Athens, this time under Derek Dooley, and got suckerpunched by a Bulldog team coming off a four-game losing streak. With promising raw talent at the offensive skill positions but a slew of question marks on defense, the Vols will be under pressure to show improvement in Dooley's second season at the helm, but the Dawgs desperately need a win here to show that they can still make their presence felt in the SEC East race.
BETTER KNOW THE VOLUNTEERS
Coach: Derek Dooley, 6-7 in one year at Tennessee; 23-27 overall
Last season: 6-7, 3-5 SEC; finished 4th in the SEC East
Returning starters for 2011: 13 (seven offense, six defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: RB Tauren Poole, QB Tyler Bray, FS Janzen Jackson, WR Justin Hunter
Key losses: LB Nick Reveiz, DE Gerald Williams, WR Denarius Moore, TE Luke Stocker
Best-case scenario: The Dawgs pound the Vols for a second straight year, with the Bulldog running game, working behind a better-conditioned offensive line, grinding the Tennessee front seven into powder down the stretch. Last year Aaron Murray got to bomb away at the Tennessee secondary in his first game with A.J. Green back and at 100 percent; this year the Dawgs will have Murray but no Green, and there will be much greater pressure for Isaiah Crowell, Washaun Ealey and the rest of the running game to perform. But if the Dawgs can jump out to another fast start -- they led 17-0 after one quarter of last year's game -- they should be able to wear down an already depleted Volunteer defensive front and coast to their first back-to-back wins in the series since 2002-03.
Worst-case scenario: The Dawgs fall victim to the same inertia that doomed them in their last two trips to Knoxville, and they trudge home bearing the bruises of another horror show of a loss. Even now it's hard to explain what happened to the Dawgs in Neyland Stadium in '07 and '09, but whatever the reasons were, the Dawgs will have to work to make sure they don't pop up again. Tyler Bray may have padded his 2010 stats against a late-season schedule of lousy teams, but he'll still be a handful for the struggling Georgia secondary, particularly with Tauren Poole and Justin Hunter, one of the SEC's most exciting young offensive talents, on hand to help him out. Aaron Murray, meanwhile, will be throwing against one of the most physically gifted secondaries in the conference and can't afford to make the kinds of mental errors he did against Florida last year. While a win in this game wouldn't immediately establish the Dawgs as contenders, a loss would signal an ominous turn at a time when Mark Richt really can't afford one.
Last year's loss to South Carolina in the second game of the season, while disappointing, was understandable for a team rebuilding in several key areas. The following week's loss to Arkansas was at least close, and besides, the Razorbacks ended up in a BCS bowl. But there was no lipstick for the pig that was the Dawgs' 24-12 loss at Mississippi State the following week, a 60-minute stinker in which the struggling Georgia offense didn't even get into the end zone until late in the fourth quarter when State was already preparing coach Dan Mullen's Gatorade bath. It was the first time the Georgia Bulldogs had to bow down to their bizarro brethren since 1974; more importantly, it represented an unequivocal sign that the 2010 season was headed over a cliff. For that reason, this year's matchup will be a critical test of just how far Mark Richt's Bulldogs have bounced back.
BETTER KNOW THE (OTHER) BULLDOGS
Coach: Dan Mullen, 14-11 in two years at Mississippi State
Last season: 9-4, 4-4 SEC; finished 5th in the SEC West and ranked 15th in the final AP poll
Returning starters for 2011: 15 (eight offense, seven defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard, WR Chad Bumphis, CB Johnthan Banks
Key losses: DE Pernell McPhee, OT Derek Sherrod, CB Maurice Langston
Best-case scenario: Georgia's bigger, more experienced defensive front clamps down on Chris Relf more than they were able to last season and leads the team to a get-back win in Athens. Don't expect a blowout win even if the Georgia Dawgs are at the top of their game, because let's face it, this is not the hapless Mississippi State program of the late Jackie Sherrill/early Sylvester Croom eras; Dan Mullen has fashioned his team into a fairly potent instrument that's no longer a gimme win for anyone, much less a Georgia team in transition. But UGA still has the edge in talent, and with stouter play from the front seven and a crisper running game on offense, they're more than capable of earning their revenge.
Worst-case scenario: Without A.J. Green, the offense continues to struggle and falls to State in another ugly game. MSU is replacing its entire starting linebacking corps, but every other unit on their defense returns mostly intact, and that could spell trouble for a Georgia offense that couldn't get out of its own way in Starkville last year, particularly in the running game. Georgia's offensive line supposedly has been getting in much better shape this off-season, but without the talent and experience of Trinton Sturdivant guarding Aaron Murray's blind side, the rugged State defense will give them everything they can handle.
While the Dawgs' opening month of the 2011 season can't exactly be called easy, they do at least get to play their first three games at home, or at least nearby. The fourth week of the season features the team's first true road trip of 2011, to Oxford, Miss., where the Ole Miss Rebels will be waiting. The Rebels have been a hard team to predict under Houston Nutt -- he steered them out of their embarrassing Ed Orgeron trough to go 18-8 his first two seasons, only to face-plant to 4-8 last year despite fielding a transfer QB with a Pac-10 title on his résumé. Regardless, Nutt has been a dangerous guy to overlook or underestimate.
BETTER KNOW THE REBELS
Coach: Houston Nutt, 22-16 in three years at Ole Miss; 133-86 overall
Last season: 4-8, 1-7 SEC; finished 6th in the SEC West and unranked
Returning starters for 2011: 16 (nine offense, five defense, two special teams)
Key returners: RB Branden Bolden, LT Bradley Sowell, CB Damien Jackson, DE Wayne Dorsey
Key losses: DE Kentrell Lockett, NT Jerrell Powe, WR Markeith Summers, QB Jeremiah Masoli
Best-case scenario: Isaiah Crowell racks up big numbers against a weakened Ole Miss front seven, giving the Dawgs a confidence-building win as they head into the heart of their SEC schedule. The Rebels ranked near the bottom of the conference in every defensive category last season, and it's hard to see that improving much with the biggest contributors on their defensive front moving on (and with linebacker D.T. Shackelford likely to miss the season with a torn ACL). If the Dawgs win in Oxford and at least split the Boise State and South Carolina games, they'd be no worse than 3-1 heading into the second month of the season -- the exact reverse of their record at the same point last year.
Worst-case scenario: Quarterback Randall Mackey manages to exploit the weaknesses in Georgia's secondary and lead the Rebs to a win. Make no mistake, the Rebels' QB situation is less than optimal -- first Jeremiah Masoli belly-flopped throughout most of 2011, then his presumptive successor, Nathan Stanley, got fed up with his spring depth-chart descent and transferred -- but Georgia simply doesn't have enough warm bodies in the secondary at this point, particularly at safety, to be overconfident about anything related to pass defense. And while Georgia's improving front seven should be able to take some heat off the DBs by applying greater pressure to Mackey, the Ole Miss offensive front returns all five starters from last year and should be formidable. The Dawgs suffered a stunning loss on their last late-September road trip to the Magnolia State -- they can't afford to let that happen again.
For two consecutive weeks in September, Georgia will face a team from South Carolina named after poultry. But the similarities end there, for the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are neither the defending SEC East champions nor a Division I-A team at all. In fact, CCU's football program has only been in existence for eight seasons, and while they've experienced a few promising successes during that time -- a couple of FCS playoff bids and a handful of Big South titles, one of which they shared last year -- they aren't on the Dawgs' schedule as anything other than a much-needed break after the opening one-two punch of Boise State and South Carolina.
BETTER KNOW THE GAMECOCKS
Coach: David Bennett, 56-34 in six seasons at Coastal Carolina; 118-60 overall
Last season: 6-6, 5-1 Big South (T-1st); lost to Western Illinois 17-10 in the first round of the FCS playoffs
Returning starters for 2011: 13 (five offense, eight defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: LT Jamey Cheatwood, TE David Duran, LB Andrae Jacobs, CB Josh Norman
Key losses: RB Eric O'Neal, S Dominique Davenport, QB Zach McDowall
Best-case scenario: The Dawgs stave off a hangover from whatever successes or disappointments they suffered in the first two games and throttle the Chanticleers early. As FCS opponents go, Coastal Carolina is decent, but there's no reason for Aaron Murray not to bomb away and give the Dawgs a healthy lead early in the game. There should be ample opportunities for Isaiah Crowell, Washaun Ealey, and Caleb King as the Dawgs try to grind out clock and look toward their next matchup.
Worst-case scenario: Georgia gets sloppy and lets CCU hang around well into the third quarter. Weirdly enough, the QB who will be under center for the Chanticleers is Aramis Hillary, who signed with South Carolina in 2008 but transferred to CCU a year ago after he and his brother were arrested in Columbia on alcohol charges. Not only was Hillary once thought to be good enough to play QB for Steve Spurrier, he'll be protected by a line returning four of five starters; his mobility means Georgia can ill afford the kinds of defensive breakdowns that plagued them against run-happy quarterbacks throughout 2010. If the third game of the season turns into a shootout rather than a blowout, it won't bode well for the Dawgs as they prepare to enter the thick of conference play.
The Georgia-South Carolina series has been a fairly lopsided affair -- the Dawgs lead the series 46-15-2 -- but for the first time in the rivalry's history, South Carolina will enter this year as the defending SEC East champions. This carries a particular sting for Georgia, as the Gamecocks' 17-6 win over the Dawgs in Columbia last year was their first big statement on the way to that title. A revenge victory for Georgia could propel them toward a similar achievement, or at the very least an important bounce back from last year's 6-7 finish, but like last year, they won't have A.J. Green to help them -- while South Carolina will have the services of running back Marcus Lattimore, who gashed the Dawgs for 182 yards as a true freshman.
BETTER KNOW THE GAMECOCKS
Coach: Steve Spurrier, 44-33 in six seasons at South Carolina; 186-73-2 overall
Last season: 9-5, 5-3 SEC East (1st); lost to Auburn 56-17 in the SEC Championship Game; lost to Florida State 26-17 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl; ranked 22nd in the final AP poll
Returning starters for 2011: 13 (seven offense, six defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: RB Marcus Lattimore, QB Stephen Garcia, WR Alshon Jeffery, CB Stephon Gilmore
Key losses: DE Cliff Matthews, DT Ladi Ajiboye, WR Tori Gurley, P/K Spencer Lanning
Best-case scenario: The addition of John Jenkins at nose tackle gives the Dawgs' defensive front the chemistry it didn't have last year and clamps down on Lattimore enough that Stephen Garcia can't bail them out. Garcia did have the best season of his tumultuous Gamecock career last season, but make no mistake, it was Lattimore's running that powered this offense at the most critical junctures, his breakout performance against Georgia being just one example. He's the kind of runner that Todd Grantham's defense simply has to learn how to stop if the Dawgs are to become relevant to the SEC race again.
Worst-case scenario: The Dawgs suffer a hangover from the Boise State game (win or lose), one so severe that the Georgia secondary lets itself get torched by the Garcia-Jeffery passing combo. While the transition to a 3-4 was last year's biggest question on defense, this year the biggest personnel concerns may be in the secondary, which performed inconsistently last year and which has seen perhaps its best playmaker, safety Alec Ogletree, moved to linebacker. There's still a lot of raw talent back there, but very little proven production for them to hang their hats on. Meanwhile, receiver Alshon Jeffery may have had an even more impressive year than Lattimore did (1,517 yards, nine TDs) and has given Garcia the kind of go-to outlet Aaron Murray is sorely missing now that A.J. Green is gone. The Dawgs have what might be the toughest season-opening two-game stretch in the country, so to split the Boise State and South Carolina games would still offer reasons for hope. An 0-2 start, though, would put the Dawgs in a deep hole regardless of the quality of the opponents.
You can accuse athletic director Greg McGarity of bringing a Florida scheduling philosophy with him from Gainesville, but don't think for one second that Mark Richt is one to back down from a challenge. Supposedly Richt was one of the driving forces behind the schedule shuffling that put Georgia in this season's Chick-fil-A Kickoff versus the Boise State Broncos, who've won 61 games and two BCS bowls in five years under Chris Petersen. Against a top-quality opponent, on perhaps the biggest stage of college football's opening weekend, we'll find out in a hurry whether the Dawgs have bounced back from the doldrums of the past two-plus seasons.
BETTER KNOW THE BRONCOS
Coach: Chris Petersen, 61-5 in five years at BSU
Last season: 12-1, 7-1 WAC; beat Utah 26-3 in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl; ranked 9th in the final AP poll
Returning starters for 2011: 14 (seven offense, seven defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: QB Kellen Moore, RB Doug Martin, LB Byron Hout
Key losses: WR Austin Pettis, WR Titus Young, DE Ryan Winterswyk, K/P Kyle Brotzman
Best-case scenario: Georgia survives a shootout with the Broncos and earns a big opening victory that puts them in the top 25 for the first time since week 1 of last season. Boise State is a great team, but they're not the Boise State of last season, who returned all but one starter from a squad that went undefeated and won the Fiesta Bowl. This BSU team actually bears a lot of similarities to Georgia -- talented QB with a depleted receiving corps, an O-line experiencing some changes on the right side, depth issues on defense. So with the SEC's best quarterback in Aaron Murray and a running game that could get a shot in the arm from blue-chip recruit Isaiah Crowell, going up against a Boise team playing in hostile territory far from home, it's hardly outside the realm of possibility for the Dawgs to pull the upset.
Worst-case scenario: Boise turns the Georgia Dome into the Terrordome and carpet-bombs the Dawgs by 20, leaving Georgia to start the season 0-1 without a lot of answers on defense and even less momentum. Let's be real here -- this isn't the same Boise team that got shellacked by Georgia in the 2005 opener, not to mention the fact that this year's Georgia team, coming off a miserable 6-7 campaign, is a far cry from that '05 squad. Though the heralded 2011 recruiting class brought in a number of players who can make near-instant contributions on defense, nose tackle Johnathan Jenkins being among the most important, Todd Grantham is still dealing with depth issues in the front seven, and the secondary still seems to be hung over from its steep decline over Willie Martinez's last few years in Athens. To beat a team as good as Boise, they'll need to toughen up physically and fill a leadership void that has nagged at this team for several seasons now.
The Georgia Bulldogs schedule for 2011 starts off with a pair of tough tests before hitting a stretch of five straight games in which the Dawgs will likely be favored. All eyes will be on the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game opener against Boise State, with Boise likely coming in with a top-10 ranking despite losing quite a few starters.
Week two's game against South Carolina won't be as hyped around the country, but will provide a better look at how the rest of the season may go.
If the Dawgs can make it out of that early stretch 2-0, they'll be in great shape. With the chance to knock out three of their four true road games before hitting the late-season rivalry stretch, there's no reason Georgia couldn't be 7-0 heading into Jacksonville with only one road game left. If we can still call Bobby Dodd Stadium an away venue for Mark Richt, that is.
That's the best-case scenario, at least.
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