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April 26, 2008

Richt building depth in Athens

The Georgia Bulldogs continue to roll in recruiting as they continue to get just about anyone they want. Sure, they have missed on some guys over the years, but overall, Mark Richt and company have consistently signed prospects regarded as some of the best in the country. That success has paid dividends on the field, and it might get better.

The news on Thursday that quarterback Aaron Murray has selected UGA over Florida and UCLA could have a big impact on the remaining half of the Class of 2009.

"When you throw in a quarterback that is kind of the headliner of his group, then you see it nationally--where if a big time quarterback is part of a class, the other players want to rally around that quarterback," says Rivals.com national recruiting editor Jeremy Crabtree. "Georgia has definitely positioned themselves to where they will end up being one of the top recruiting classes in the country already."

However, as good as that news is for Dawg fans, it gets even better if you take a look at the team's current roster.

Across the board, the squad is about as complete as a coach could want, and 10 of the 22 current starters will be freshmen or sophomores in 2008, which includes all the tailbacks and all but one offensive lineman. Couple that with the fact that so many positions feature players that are virtually equal in talent, and you have the reason Georgia heads into the 2008 season favored by many to win the Southeastern Conference, and favored by some to claim the national championship.

Georgia's built in catch 22 here is that for all the boost they could get in recruiting by having such a season their young and deep depth roster leaves little in the way of available scholarships. Furthermore, as much as a season like that could help with recruiting, Georgia has tended to fill their classes rather quickly since Richt arrived in town.

"I think the trend of the last couple of years will continue, and they could have as many as 15 commitments by the end of October," says UGASports recruiting editor Chad Simmons.

With 14 seniors on the roster, that projection puts the team one over their available scholarship limit assuming they head into the season with the NCAA maximum of 85. The belief is that Georgia could end up signing as many as 18 to 20 prospects next February. Where it could really get interesting is if the Dawgs are nearly full by Thanksgiving and go on to win the conference championship and even bigger things, and they suddenly raise their stock with prospects holding out to announce until signing day.

Speaking on the issue of filling up early recently with UGASports, Georgia recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner said: "It is a double edged sword, and I do not know if there is a right or wrong way. You have to look at your need, and we have to look at every kid and ask, 'Hey if this kid commits, are we going to be good with it?' If that answer is yes, then we are going to go ahead and offer him. If we fill up, we fill up, but that is just the business."

Simmons believes that at least two of UGA's top targets, four-star linebacker Jarvis Jones of Columbus and four-star Atlanta cornerback Branden Smith, will likely wait until the last minute to announce their intentions, and that regardless of who or how many the team has at the time, Georgia will welcome them with an open fax machine. With a little luck and a big season, the Dawgs might also raise their stock with five-star receivers Marlon Brown of Memphis or Rueben Randle of Bastrop, La.

Getting themselves in position to get players of this caliber might be the one thing that can keep Georgia in the national title race conversation for years to come.

Of the 28 schools that finished in the top ten in Rivals.com's team recruiting rankings since they began in 2002, only Georgia has made the cut every time, while only two others, Southern California and Oklahoma, have been in the top ten in all but one year.

Clearly, those rankings are pretty accurate when you consider that a combination of Richt's first two classes, 2001 and 2002 which was ranked the number three class, ended up finishing their careers in 2005 as the winningest group of seniors ever at Georgia with a 44-9 record. But before we slap too many recruiting gurus on the back, we also have to note that the current crop of seniors, which consists of players from the classes of 2004 and 2005, with 2005 being the lowest ranked class of the Richt era at number ten, is currently riding the second longest winning streak in the nation at seven games (BYU, 10), and could become the sixth consecutive class to have added 40 or more wins to Georgia's all-time totals.

According to College Football Data Warehouse (www.cfbdatawarehouse.com), Georgia is number seven in winning percentage since Richt took over in 2001. Only one SEC school, LSU, who has won two more games and lost one less in that span, is ahead of UGA, at number six. In that time, the two have played each other four times, each winning at home, and each defeating the other in the conference championship game. But while Georgia has captured the league title twice, LSU has three times, as well as winning the national championship twice.

What does all of this mean?

For starters, it means that Georgia has been close to competing for the national championship, and has had most of the pieces in place, but has lacked that little something to push them over the hump. Even in the years UGA has won the SEC, they have not been given the chance to play for all the marbles, while LSU been able two twice and cashed in both times.

Secondly, it shows that bringing in the top rated players and having top ranked classes does manifest itself on the field. LSU has had classes ranked first and second in the country since 2001; Texas had a top ranked class then shortly thereafter captured the national title; and Southern Cal's success on both fronts has been an embarrassment of riches. Similar situations exist with programs such as Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio State.

Lastly, it suggests that having a bunch of talented players can consistently keep you among the best in the nation, but the factors that are beyond the control of coaches is what usually matters in the end, i.e., top three teams have identical records, or the biggie--injuries.

While Richt can do nothing about the identical records issue, he can, and has, done something to alleviate the pain of injuries, and that brings us back around to the depth.

Right now, Georgia is deeper than they have probably ever been, and more are on the way in August. Regardless of the kind of season the Bulldogs have, there is little doubt that a year from now we will be talking once again about the stiff competition at every position.

For some, the notion of trying to battle for playing time in such a crowded house is too much, but for the best of the best, as Aaron Murray clearly showed last week, competition is not feared, but rather a welcome fact of life for players in programs serious about competition for the national championship.

Obviously, it does not scare prospects away from Baton Rouge or Los Angeles, and because of that, those two programs have become arguably the two most dominant teams in college football this decade. But Georgia is right there with them and in fact finished last season sandwiched between number one LSU and number three Southern Cal.

It is not likely that both the Bulldogs and Tigers can finish that high in 2008 as they play each other in the regular season (at LSU on 10/25), and if they win their divisions they would meet again in the SEC Championship Game. Most pre-season polls suggest the belief that UGA will win both of those games, though they do not all agree the second one will be against LSU, and many believe the Bulldogs will win their game after that, which this year will be played in Miami.

In the meantime, Richt and his staff will continue to do something at which they have done very well, which is recruit, and in doing so, will remain in championship conversations for years to come.

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