This post begins a series checking in on next season's opponents. The goal is to have gathered useful information about each opponent prior to the beginning of the season. Last time, we talked about the East Carolina Pirates. Today, we're talking about the Georgia Bulldogs. Interested fans can spy on the Dawgs at SB Nation's fine Georgia blog, Dawg Sports.
The Dawgs' current woes are well-documented. Georgia is coming off its first losing season since 1996, which was Jim Donnan's first year in Athens. Mark Richt is now generally thought to be on the hot seat, despite being one of the game's most successful coaches in recent years and one of the most successful in Georgia's illustrious history. Last year was, to say the least, a trying year in Athens, and there's definitely a sense of turmoil and uncertainty surrounding this program right now.
Despite their struggles, some allowance can be given for Georgia's subpar performance, and it would seem that a case could be made that this team was much better than its record indicates. (We know how that feels, UGA.) First of all, star receiver A.J. Green was absent for the first few games of the season, which include some of Georgia's most surprising, costly losses.
Of course, his return, including this catch, didn't stop the Dawgs from losing to a terrible Colorado team. (video via TheOriginalBlawger)
The other mitigating factor would be that this team statistically performed better than its record indicates, fielding respectable offensive and defensive numbers and one of the best kicking units in the nation. That's partially because Georgia was a team that oftentimes had field days against lesser competition, waxing teams like Vanderbilt and Tennessee, but that struggled in the big games. Still, Georgia wasn't a team that was getting clocked itself in the big games, and its numbers really are perplexing: with solid numbers and a top-twenty turnover margin, how did this team lose so many games? The answer may be a simple one: as we saw when we played them last year, the Dawgs tended to play good teams fairly close but to fail to capitalize on its opportunities. Georgia's costly fumble on our goal line last year might be its season in a microcosm.
The Dawgs lose some key players here and there. The aforementioned Green is the big one. Second WR Kris Durham is also gone. Georgia also loses a couple of players on the offensive line, but does return some nice talent to build around there. RB Washaun Ealey is gone, but most Dawgs fans probably aren't too heartbroken about that one. On defense, the big loss is OLB Justin Houston, who was a third-round draft pick.
Keep reading after the jump.
Georgia returns All-SEC QB Aaron Murray and a good bit of talent on the offensive line, but question marks abound at other positions. Georgia's biggest problem on offensive last year was establishing a productive running game, and while the offensive line looks to be in place to remedy the problem, runningback is a big question mark. With Ealey gone, Georgia will look to true freshman Isaiah Crowell to shoulder a big load next year. That plan worked well for Carolina and Marcus Lattimore last year, but--even granting that Crowell appears to be a major talent--it's not every day that a true freshman can come in and completely revamp a floundering running game. In other words, uncertainty remain here for the Dawgs. Caleb King provides a capable, experienced backup, but he's shown no signs that he's capable of being a first-team runningback for a team in the running for an SEC Title. Receiver is also a question mark for Georgia, which loses its two best from a year ago. Luckily, TE Orson Charles can be a major player in the receiving game. UGA will look to Tavarres King to be more productive at wideout.
Going into last season, Georgia looked to new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to resuscitate its struggling defense. Grantham's unit showed improvement over what had been one of the conference's weakest defenses in 2009, but it frequently failed to create the big plays needed to make things easier on the off-and-on offense. Finding a reliable pass rush will be perhaps Grantham's biggest challenge this year. This program was once known for its devastating rushers, but in recent years, despite fielding some impressive talent at end and outside linebacker, it has failed to disrupt opposing passing games. Despite having a capable pass rusher in Houston, Georgia was 71st in the nation in sacks last season. Those numbers have to improve for this defense to take the next step. Grantham also needs to work with his defensive interior on its tackling ability, which is largely what cost Georgia the game against Carolina last season.
The Border War is always a special occasion, particularly for Carolina fans, most of whom see Georgia as our biggest SEC rival. This year, the stakes are even higher, as most prognosticators see this as the game that will decide the SEC East. The game is particularly significant for Carolina. If these are really the East's best two teams, then Carolina, with a more difficult SEC slate than Georgia, may not be able to recover from an early-season loss to its competitor for the division crown. The same might not be true for Georgia, but that doesn't mean that the Dawgs won't find themselves in a huge hole if they blow their chance to avenge last season's loss in Columbia.
This is a very difficult game to call. Last year and in 2007, I felt confident that Carolina would beat Georgia, and my predictions came true. The two years prior, I felt the Dawgs had the edge, and they won both games, although both were closer than I expected. This year, I don't have a good feeling about which team will win. I feel that Carolina has a slightly better team: to put it simply, both teams return a similar amount of talent, and with Carolina the better team last year, one would expect the same to be true this year. That said, I feel that Georgia will be much better this year. I like Crowell to have a Lattimore-like effect on the UGA offense, and Year Two with Murray should yield a good passing game. The question for UGA is on defense. I feel like Carolina still holds a decent edge there, particularly due to its elite pass rush, which should improve with Shaq Wilson returning. That being the case, I give a slight edge to Carolina, even with the game in Athens. However, it's very likely that's emotion rather than reason talking. Expect this to be a close one.