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July 26, 2010
Georgia is the only team in the country that has won at least eight games for 13 consecutive seasons, but that hasn't stopped Bulldogs fans from grumbling over the program's recent loss of momentum.
A team that opened the 2008 season atop the national rankings has endured back-to-back disappointments. Georgia settled for a 10-3 record in 2008 and needed to win its last two games a year ago just to finish 8-5.
While the conjecture that Georgia coach Mark Richt is on the hot seat seems absurdly premature - he's one of only seven Division I coaches to win at least 90 games in his first nine seasons - the Bulldogs clearly needed a fresh start.
But it might take time for this program to regain its footing. Georgia returns a veteran offensive line, but the Bulldogs also are relying on a redshirt freshman quarterback (Aaron Murray) while installing a new defense. The Bulldogs should continue their bowl streak this season, but they might be a year away from realistically contending for an SEC title.
THE SCHEME: Georgia has stayed relatively traditional with a pro-style attack that includes both a tailback and a fullback in the backfield.
STAR POWER: Injuries and mediocre quarterbacks have prevented him from racking up dominant statistics, but make no mistake about it: A.J. Green is one of the nation's top receivers. Green caught 56 passes for 963 yards - the third-highest total in school history - and was named the SEC freshman of the year in 2008. He followed that up with 53 catches for 808 yards last season despite missing three games with a shoulder injury. He almost singlehandedly won the Arizona State game by making a 56-yard touchdown reception and also blocking a field-goal attempt with the score tied in the fourth quarter. His athleticism and 6-foot-4 frame make him almost impossible to cover.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Georgia's chances of competing for an SEC title depend on whether Murray can deliver a successful debut season. When Zach Mettenberger was kicked off the team this spring, it left Murray as the clear-cut starting quarterback. He's backed up by Logan Gray, who also will be playing wide receiver. Murray arrived at Georgia as the No. 3 pro-style quarterback and No. 46 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. He threw for 4,013 yards as a junior at powerhouse Tampa (Fla.) Plant and came back from a broken fibula to lead Plant to a Class 4A state title as a senior.
STRONGEST AREA: Georgia returns five starters and eight lettermen from last season on the line. The line is anchored by LT Clint Boling, who earned first-team All-SEC honors last season. Georgia could be in even better shape if Trinton Sturdivant makes a successful comeback after missing most of the past two seasons with knee injuries. Sturdivant was Georgia's starting left tackle as a true freshman in 2007.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The quarterback situation is the biggest reason most forecasters don't expect much from Georgia this season. Georgia needs Murray to avoid freshman mistakes because the Bulldogs don't have many alternatives. The only player on the roster with any college quarterback experience is Gray, who will spend much of the preseason adjusting to a switch to wide receiver.
SCHEME: Georgia is moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this year under new coordinator Todd Grantham, the former defensive line coach with the Dallas Cowboys. Grantham has said the Bulldogs will be much more aggressive than in recent seasons.
STAR POWER: CB Brandon Boykin had a team-high three interceptions last season and also scored on three kickoff returns. He was named one of the team's most improved players at the end of spring practice. OLB Justin Houston made 15 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks to earn second-team All-SEC honors last season as an end; Georgia coaches are hoping for even more production now that he has changed positions.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman NT Kwame Geathers exited spring practice second on the depth chart and should earn plenty of playing time. Geathers is the younger brother of former Georgia DE Robert Geathers (now with the Cincinnati Bengals) and former South Carolina DE Clifton Geathers (now with the Cleveland Browns). Geathers will battle Justin Anderson, who started nine games at guard last season, for the backup job. Anderson missed spring drills with a shoulder injury.
STRONGEST AREA: Georgia should be in good shape at outside linebacker. Houston could rank among the SEC's top defensive playmakers this season, and Cornelius Washington also has plenty of upside. Washington, a 6-4, 255-pound sophomore, has remarkable speed for someone of his size. He recorded four sacks last season despite making only one start.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Georgia has plenty of holes to fill on the line following the departures of Ts Geno Atkins, Jeff Owens and Kade Weston. The Bulldogs have talented players up front, but many of them will be adjusting to greater roles while also adapting to a scheme change.
Georgia arguably has the best special-teams unit in the nation. Drew Butler won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter last season. Butler, the son of former Georgia and NFL kicker Kevin Butler, led the nation with an average of 48.1 yards per attempt and helped the Bulldogs rank first in net punting. Blair Walsh went 20-of-22 on field-goal attempts last season and was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award that goes to the nation's top kicker. Walsh, a junior, is a combined 6-of-10 from at least 50 yards out during his career. Georgia also has an exceptional kick returner in Boykin, who tied an SEC record by scoring on three kickoff returns last season. The Bulldogs' coverage teams were awful last season, and coach Mark Richt promises improvement this season.
Georgia has the type of schedule that could help the Bulldogs exceed most preseason expectations. Georgia's SEC schedule doesn't include games with Alabama or LSU. The Bulldogs open with Louisiana-Lafayette before traveling to South Carolina and playing host to Arkansas in a critical two-game swing. Georgia's non-conference schedule includes a home game with Georgia Tech, a trip to Colorado and a home game with Idaho State as well as that season-opening date with ULL. The Nov. 6 game with Idaho State will mark the only time the Bulldogs are at home during a four-week stretch that includes matchups with Kentucky, Florida and Auburn.
Plenty of questions surround Georgia as it heads into the season, but the answers should come early. The Bulldogs travel to South Carolina for the second game of the season and host Arkansas the following week. By the end of that two-game stretch, we ought to know whether Georgia can bounce back from the disappointment of 2009. The South Carolina game is particularly critical because the winner will emerge as Florida's top challenger in the SEC East. The most likely scenario is that Georgia splits those two games on its way to a 9-4 finish. This Georgia team is better than some of the pessimistic preseason forecasts have suggested, but the Bulldogs won't be ready to end Florida's reign atop the SEC East until Murray gains more experience and the defense adapts to the change in scheme.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.