For a couple of years, I almost eye-rolled my way to a headache at every "Mark Richt on the hot seat" story that came along. Richt accomplished so much in his first eight years in Athens -- six 10-win seasons (Georgia had enjoyed only two in the previous 17 years before Richt took over), two SEC titles, three Sugar Bowl bids (two wins) -- that he should have earned more than enough goodwill to survive what were basically two down years (13-12 in 2009-10), I said repeatedly. But over time, I've come to accept that three things, fair or (mostly) unfair, have served as a bit of an anchor for Richt, one he somewhat overcame in 2011, but one that is hovering in the background, waiting to drop in during the next disappointment (and there's always another disappointment):
1. Disappointment lingers. In 2008, Georgia went 10-3. As mentioned above, it was their sixth 10-win season in eight years, a remarkable achievement. But while they shouldn't have been ranked No. 1 in the preseason that year, they were. And it made a 10-3 year look incredibly disappointing. Two of the Dawgs' three losses came to incredible Alabama and Florida teams that went a combined 23-1 in the regular season, but since the polls predicted them to be incredible themselves, instead of just really good (which was what the numbers suggested they would be), this was problematic, to put it kindly. So when Richt had what seems to me to be his first truly disappointing season the next year (8-5 in 2009, with losses to iffy Tennessee and Kentucky teams and another blowout loss to Florida), it was seen as a second straight tumble. And it is probably fair to say that portions of the fanbase are still frustrated about 2008.
2. "He hasn't won a national title or made a BCS title game." I am not even a Georgia fan, and I have heard this line many, many times in regard to Richt. I have always raged against this line of thinking, and for all the reasons I've written about 1,593 times now (It took Tom Osborne 20 years! Mack Brown! Et cetera!). All you can do is put an elite product on the field as many times as possible and hope that the breaks eventually go your way. Georgia's 13-1 SEC champion in 2002 would have quite possibly played for the national title in 2001 or 2003, but they instead chose a year that produced two undefeated BCS programs (Ohio State and Miami). The 2003 team had the misfortune of facing Nick Saban's greatest LSU team twice; in 2004, that same team could have possibly given Auburn a run for the top spot in the SEC. The 2007 team was one break away from a potential spot in the SEC and BCS title games. Richt has crafted an elite product for nearly half of his 10 seasons in Athens. And so on. If he figures out ways to keep doing that (or start doing it again, I guess), he will eventually be rewarded.
3. The Georgia head coaching job may be the toughest in the country. When it comes to cotton, civilian aircraft, peaches, Chick-fil-A's and football recruits, the state of Georgia is about as fertile as it gets. The Peach State is behind just Florida, Texas, California and occasionally Ohio in terms of the number of top-notch football players it produces from year to year, but while those first three states share a seemingly infinite number of FBS programs, Georgia must only share the state with Georgia Tech. Obviously most of the SEC recruits the state of Georgia heavily, but UGA's recruiting rankings are regularly fantastic. Considering the resources at hand, Georgia's entire history almost seems a bit disappointing. The only national title the Dawgs have won in the last 70 years came in 1980, and it took a transcendent freshman and a transcendent catch-and-run to get the job done. That one big loss has stood in the way many times (to South Carolina in 2007, to Florida in 2002, to Penn State in 1982, to Clemson in 1981). History suggests that the Georgia football program is one of the 10 to 15 best and most storied in the country; resources suggest they should be in the top five. That isn't simply Richt's fault, of course.
It does bear mentioning, though, that while the 2008 "disappointment" was the product of expectations that were higher than they should have been, those 2009-10 teams were unacceptably poor. Georgia ranked 35th in F/+ in 2009 and 27th in 2010, and with annually fantastic recruiting rankings, that should probably never happen, no matter what kind of injuries, suspensions or youth get in the way. And while we're airing our grievances, a) most of Richt's elite teams took the field in the first half of the last decade (an obviously negative trend of sorts), and b) Richt was almost foolishly conservative at times in 2011, letting up on the accelerator early enough to make wins over Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt more interesting than they probably should have been and playing things far too safe in the Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State.
But make no mistake: Richt's Bulldogs have rallied. After a 1-4 start in 2010, they won five of seven to finish the regular season. And after an 0-2 start in 2011, they won 10 games in a row for just the second time since 1982. Richt is the rare survivor of a seemingly long bout with the hot seat, but his team succeeded just enough last year to bring high expectations back into the picture. The Dawgs will begin the 2012 season ranked sixth in both the AP and USA Today polls. Will Richt field his first truly elite team since 2007, or are the high rankings setting up another disappointment from which it will be hard for either Richt or Georgia fans (or both) to recover?
Survive the first two weeks. That's the name of the game for Georgia in 2011. If they start the season 2-0, having beaten Boise State in Atlanta and South Carolina in Athens, then suddenly this talented, super-athletic, and still semi-young team becomes a name in the national title race. But even though UGa could lose both of those games and still be a damn fine team, the negative sentiments will grow significantly with an 0-2 start, especially after two diminished years and endless 'hot seat' discussion.
After South Carolina, things ease up quite a bit. Georgia's three conference road games are trips to Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt -- all winnable (though Tennessee's going to be tricky this year) -- and they get Auburn at home. Football Outsiders' projections have them tying with South Carolina for the East title precisely because of this schedule. However, the psychological impact of the first two games could be significant, and Georgia certainly has quite a bit to overcome, namely the fourth-quarter struggles, the reliance on former star recruits who have yet to star at the collegiate level, and the fact that the Dawgs' fumble recovery rates and YPP margin suggest they weren't particularly unlucky last year. For at least one more year, they get the benefit of the doubt from the numbers, but another disappointing season would change that. In recent years, the whole has not been greater than the sum of the parts. With a potentially great quarterback and a defense more equipped for its scheme, things should be looking up in 2011; their path to an East title still contains more 'ifs' than South Carolina, but the ceiling is certainly as high as ever.
The first two weeks were indeed problematic. Georgia began the season by getting whipped by an elite Boise State squad, then fell victim to turnovers in a three-point home loss to South Carolina. They played well enough to beat most teams in each of those two weeks, but they didn't play well enough to beat two very good teams. But instead of falling apart, the Dawgs just kept playing at a high level, and the wins followed when the schedule eased up.
Georgia's 2011 season is actually a good reason why a measure like Adj. Points exists. The idea behind that concept is to gauge how a team would have fared in playing a perfectly average team each week and therefore figure out real trends in performance instead of relying on wins and losses. Georgia played its two best regular season opponents in the first two weeks of the season, performed well, and still lost. Late in the year, their performance actually began to trail off.
First Two Games: Georgia 34.3 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 26.7 (plus-7.6)
Next Eight Games: Georgia 31.1 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 20.7 (plus-11.0)
Last Four Games: Georgia 26.0 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 22.7 (plus-3.3)
As the season progressed, Georgia's damaged corps of running backs began to take its toll. None of their top five rushers played more than 12 games, and only two played more than eight (and really, only a couple of them were actually very good). After rushing for 249 yards per game (5.3 per carry) against Florida, New Mexico State and Auburn, the Dawgs gained just 103 per game (2.8 per carry) in their final four contests. Not surprisingly, that dragged the offense down. But the defense was more than good enough to stretch the win streak to 10 before Georgia was dominated (eventually) by LSU in the SEC title game.
In all, despite the early losses and the late offensive issues, Georgia finished 15th in the F/+ rankings, a solid improvement over the previous two seasons. The offense ranked 18th in Off. F/+, the defense 17th in Def. F/+. When healthy, the Dawgs were excellent, and in 2012 both the offense and defense could play at a Top 10 level with some luck and general year-to-year improvement.
Mike Bobo was seemingly embattled the moment he accepted the job of Georgia's offensive coordinator. Promoted from quarterbacks coach after Neil Callaway accepted the UAB head coaching position, Bobo was at the helm when things clicked for quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2008 (the Bulldogs ranked fourth in Off. F/+ that year and were drastically held back by a defense that ranked 68th), and when pieces fell into place for quarterback Aaron Murray midway through his freshman season in 2010. But between a semi-drastic step backwards in 2006 (when his quarterback options were a career backup and a true freshman in Stafford) and only decent offenses in 2007 (34th in Off. F/+) and 2009 (38th), he has been a popular target of frustrated Georgia fans.
(Of course, all offensive coordinators are. Missouri fans are not averse to calling for David Yost's head every time the Tigers punt.)
Bobo's offense in 2011 was an interesting one. The running game was inefficient and ineffective, ranking 91st in Rushing S&P+. Five-star freshman Isaiah Crowell was either hurt or looking like a freshman for a good percentage of the season, and nobody could stay healthy. Crowell logged 185 carries, Richard Samuel IV 82, Carlton Thomas 73, Brandon Harton 53, Ken Malcome 42 and walk-on Kyle Karempellis 13. None averaged even 5.0 yards per carry despite a line that featured two all-conference caliber performers. Honestly, the best runners may have been quarterback Aaron Murray and cornerback Branden Smith, but they combined for only 69 non-sack carries. The stable of backs was both banged up and mostly green, and it showed.
Still, Georgia fielded a top-20 offense because of a top-five passing game. Bobo kept things both simple and old-school; "simple" in that Murray faced as few no-win situations as possible (Georgia ran the ball 47 percent of the time on passing downs, much higher than the national average of 33 percent, meaning a disproportionate number of Georgia's passes took place on pass-friendly standard downs), and "old-school" in that Georgia went downfield often. Only one running back (Crowell) was targeted more than six times all season, and of the five most frequently targeted wideouts, only one averaged fewer than 14.7 yards per catch. Bobo wants little to do with the east-and-west stuff; he wants to go north, using play-action to open up downfield routes whenever possible. That Georgia was effective as it was with this despite the complete and total lack of run game tells you that the Bulldogs could be unstoppable if they could figure out how to move the ball just a little on the ground.
That leads us to quite the "good news, bad news" situation.
Good news: the passing game could be even better in 2012.
Bad news: the run game could be even worse.
The two most effective Georgia backs according to both Adj. POE (an opponent-adjusted look at running backs' contributions) and yards-per-carry were Crowell and Thomas. Both are gone. Samuel was ineffective enough (2.9 yards per carry) that he was moved to fullback. That leaves Harton (minus-7.5 Adj. POE, meaning he was more than a touchdown worse than the average back given his carries, opponents and blocking; this is an awful total considering his small number of carries), Malcome (minus-5.1), Karempellis (plus-0.3 but with little expected upside), and two four-star freshmen: Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley has looked great in fall scrimmages, and Malcome has looked good enough to start over Gurley, which is good. But the freshmen are probably still going to play like freshmen, and blocking could regress.
The Dawgs ranked just 67th in Adj. Line Yards last year, and now they must replace their three most experienced linemen, including first-team all-conference tackle Cordy Glenn and second-team all-conference center Ben Jones. Three players with starting experience return a rather low 31 career starts, and strangely enough, for all of Georgia's recruiting successes, few have come on the line. Guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee (19 career starts between them) were both four-star signees, but almost the entire two-deep is filled with three-star guys. That obviously doesn't mean they will perform poorly in their new roles; but as I often say about recruiting rankings, they are all about odds. The odds of a three-star redshirt freshman or sophomore performing well aren't as high as the odds of a four-star doing the same. The line is a concern, as are, potentially, the players running behind it. Some blue-chip freshmen could change that outlook (Gurley, Marshall, five-star freshman tackle John Theus), but relying on freshmen backfires more than it rewards.
If the running game can just reach competence (even 60th in Rushing S&P+ would be great), though, the passing game could lead the way to a great offensive performance. Five of Murray's top six targets return, including all-or-nothing senior Tavarres King (677 yards, 7.7 per target, a poor 52 percent catch rate) and exciting sophomore Malcolm Mitchell (665 yards, 10.9 per target, 74 percent catch rate). Mitchell is skilled enough to potentially start at both receiver and corner, so it will be interesting to see how much he is utilized on each side of the ball. Without him on offense, Georgia risks over-reliance on King, whose positive plays (14.7 yards per catch, six catches for a whopping 205 yards in the bowl loss) are neutralized by incompletions. So the pressure could shift to higher-efficiency targets like sophomores Michael Bennett (320 yards, 6.5 per target, 65 percent catch rate) and Chris Conley (288 yards, 11.1 per target, 62 percent catch rate) to make sure the "nothing" part of King's all-or-nothing routine isn't too damaging. The emergence of a new, reliable tight end to replace Orson Charles (Junior Arthur Lynch? Redshirt freshman Jay Rome?) wouldn't hurt, either.
(Some pressure also goes on both Murray and the line protecting him; Murray's 7.1 percent sack rate was too high last year, even if downfield routes tend to lead to higher sack rates.)
Perhaps more pressure has fallen onto Bobo's shoulders because Georgia fans don't have an iffy defensive coordinator to kick around anymore. After 11 seasons in the pros, Todd Grantham took the Georgia D.C. job in 2010, replacing the (justifiably) embattled Willie Martinez. Despite all the high recruiting rankings in the world, the Dawgs' defense had fallen from 14th in Def. F/+ in 2007, to 68th in 2008 and 41st in 2009. It was dragging down Richt's program, and it made sense for him to make a move. And he made a very, very good one.
Grantham imported his 3-4 defense to Athens, and after a year of transition (47th in Def. F/+ in 2010), we began to see some serious improvement last fall. Georgia ranked 13th in Rushing S&P+, seventh in Passing S&P+, sixth on standard downs and 16th on passing downs. There is certainly room for improvement -- they didn't attack incredibly well (30th in Adj. Sack Rate), and they seemed to run out of gas late in games (sixth in the first quarter, third in the second, ninth in the third and 68th in the fourth) -- but it is okay to leave room to grow when your defense is also incredibly young. Seven of the top eight tacklers return on the line, along with the top seven linebackers and six of the top eight defensive backs.
Granted, there are some suspensions to work through. Senior corner Sanders Commings (one interception, 12 passes broken up, 4.0 tackles for loss) is suspended for two games, as is potential starting outside linebacker Chase Vasser (3.5 tackles for loss). But the biggest temporary losses are somewhat unknown; potentially incredible inside linebacker Alec Ogletree (7.5 tackles for loss in eight games) and ball-hawking safety Bacarri Rambo (eight interceptions, eight passes broken up) could be suspended between one and four games, but it is not yet official. So when the Dawgs visit Missouri on September 8, they could be down four starters. Starting somewhere in mid- to late-September, however, the defense will have all of its pieces, and it could be incredible to watch.
In terms of purely a starting 11, few defenses will have as much going for them as Georgia's in 2012. In the secondary, the outstanding Brandon Boykin (11.0 tackles for loss, three picks, nine passes broken up) is gone, but Georgia still has Commings, Branden Smith (two interceptions, one pass broken up) and Malcolm Mitchell at corner. And at safety, Rambo and senior Shawn Williams (four interceptions, six passes broken up, 5.0 tackles for loss) still lead the way.
At linebacker, you've got Ogletree and either Michael Gilliard or Christian Robinson (combined: 13.5 tackles for loss, five passes broken up) on the inside and preseason All-American Jarvis Jones (19.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks) on the outside.
And on the line, Grantham finally has the makings of a truly fantastic 3-4 line. He's got Abry Jones, Garrison Smith, Cornelius Washington and five-star converted linebacker Ray Drew (combined: 18.5 tackles for loss) capable of standing up blockers at end, and he's got two enormous, line-imploding tackles: senior John Jenkins (6'3, 358, 6.0 tackles for loss) and junior Kwame Geathers (6'6, 355, one pass broken up).
If we want to, we can nitpick about depth (the secondary is potentially shaky in this regard), we can point out that those two to four suspensions could hurt against a Missouri offense that might be excellent at intermediate and deeper passing, and we can at least slightly question their ability to get to the quarterback (aside from Jones). But when all the pieces are in place, it is going to be very, very difficult to move the ball on Georgia this year. When a unit returns this much experience from the previous season, it has almost no choice but to improve. And Georgia's defense was already damn good last year.
When you start the season ranked sixth in the country and are typically assumed to have an easier conference schedule than your top division rivals, the bar is pretty clearly set. If Georgia doesn't win its second straight East title, it is going to be pretty disappointing. If the Dawgs slip up more than once, maybe twice, against a schedule that somehow features only two games versus projected Top 20 teams, it is probably going to be disappointing. And since the numbers almost agree with the pollsters (Georgia is projected eighth in the country, with a 66 percent chance of going 10-2 or better), this is probably fair.
From 2002 to late-November 2008, Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs went 73-17. Over the next 29 games, they went just 15-14. Their 10-2 finish in 2011 represented either a temporary surge (aided by a less-than-brutal schedule) or the onset of a recovery, and with the level of experience here, sign me up for the latter.
Make no mistake: the offense still has plenty of question marks. The running backs might have all the potential in the world, but it is still just potential right now. The receiving corps is still a little too reliant on low-efficiency guys at times (not only Tavarres king, but also senior split end Marlon Brown). And the line is quite young. But if the doesn't slip up early, it will be virtually impenetrable, and it should allow Bobo and Richt to play things conservatively (as is their wont) and get away with it. The conservatism I saw in last year's Outback Bowl irked me a bit, and if the offense doesn't click, Georgia will certainly be in danger of losing in trips to Columbia (Missouri), Columbia (South Carolina), Auburn and Jacksonville (to face Florida). I don't think I can consider them a national title contender because of this, but they should certainly be considered the heads of the class in the SEC East this year. Mark Richt is a survivor, and the odds are pretty good that he will become the head of an elite football team, or close to it, again this year.
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