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July 30, 2008
THE SCHEME: In an era when many big-time programs – particularly in the SEC – are going more and more toward the spread offense, Georgia remains a throwback. The Bulldogs occasionally employ the spread, but they typically run a conventional set with a fullback and tailback. It will be interesting to see if that changes early this season since the Bulldogs don't have much depth behind starting fullback Brannan Southerland, who will miss the first few games with a stress fracture in his left foot.
STAR POWER: Sophomore tailback Knowshon Moreno enters the year as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate after enjoying the best freshman season of any Georgia running back since Herschel Walker. Moreno rushed for 1,334 yards last season and reached the 100-yard mark in five consecutive games. That puts him in impressive company: The only SEC players to rush for more yards as freshmen are Walker, Tennessee's Jamal Lewis and Florida's Emmitt Smith.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman wide receiver A.J. Green was the No. 2 wide receiver and No. 9 overall prospect in the '08 recruiting class. Green should get an early chance to earn playing time in a receiving corps that must replace Sean Bailey, who led the Bulldogs with 615 receiving yards last season. Green ended his Summerville (S.C.) High School career with 269 receptions for 5,279 yards and 53 touchdowns. He had at least 65 catches and 1,200 receiving yards in each of his four seasons at Summersville. True freshman center Ben Jones also should see ample time this fall. The projected starting center is sophomore Chris Davis, who played guard last season.
IT'S HIS TIME: The No. 1 receiving prospect in the state of Georgia in 2004 was Calvin Johnson, who went on to become the greatest receiver in Georgia Tech history. The No. 2 receiver recruit in the state that year was four-star prospect Demiko Goodman, who has caught just 20 passes in his injury-riddled college career. Goodman still has plenty of talent, but this represents the fifth-year senior's last chance to make an impact. Bailey's departure creates opportunities for all the returning receivers, but Goodman will have to work his way through a crowded depth chart.
STRONGEST AREA: Georgia's backfield is the envy of just about every team in the country. Junior quarterback Matthew Stafford cut down his interception rate last season and is considered a probable first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Southerland gives Georgia a classic blocking fullback. Moreno might be the top running back in the nation. Even the backups would start most other places. Joe Cox ranks among the top second-team quarterbacks in the country, while redshirt freshman tailback Caleb King is a former four-star prospect with plenty of upside.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Georgia's line earned plenty of attention last season for succeeding with three freshman starters. As well as the linemen played last year, they still lack experience. Junior guard Vince Vance is the only upperclassman on the line. Georgia already figured to have trouble replacing departed center Fernando Velasco and right tackle Chester Adams. The Bulldogs could have even more problems now that guard Clint Boling has been suspended for the first two games of the season after a DUI arrest.
OVERVIEW: Georgia broke the 40-point mark six times last season and averaged 32.6 points per game despite ranking just 75th in the nation in total offense. The Bulldogs have enough returning starters to match those scoring numbers this season, though the line's inexperience is a major concern. Somebody has to assume the leadership role that Velasco filled last season. But aside from the line, this offense doesn't have many questions. Bailey's loss could hurt the passing game, but the return of Mohamed Massaquoi and plenty of other wide receivers should assure that Stafford still has plenty of reliable targets. And the running game should be just fine as long as Moreno's in the backfield.
THE SCHEME: Georgia runs a 4-3 defense that typically has featured an exceptional pass rush during the Mark Richt era. The Bulldogs have averaged 36.8 sacks over the past five seasons, including an SEC-leading 42 last season.
STAR POWER: Georgia has a star performer on each level of its defense. Junior tackle Geno Atkins started only seven games last season, yet still had 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Imagine what he could do now that he's a full-time starter. Senior linebacker Dannell Ellerbe recorded 93 tackles last season, 29 more than anyone else on the defense. And junior cornerback Asher Allen had 64 tackles last season and capped off the season with two interceptions in the Sugar Bowl.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Freshmen won't see much playing time this fall. One exception could be cornerback Brandon Boykin, a four-star prospect who played defensive back and quarterback at Fayette County (Ga.) High School.
IT'S HIS TIME: This could be the year that sophomore free safety Reshad Jones makes the leap to stardom. Jones, a former five-star prospect, was rated as the No. 1 safety and No. 14 overall prospect in the 2006 recruiting class. He already has shown a knack for coming through in big games. Jones delivered a team-high seven tackles against Florida last year, picked off a pass against Georgia Tech and had six tackles – one for a loss – in the Sugar Bowl. Now that he is moving into the starting lineup, Jones should emerge as a big-time performer. Last season's starting free safety, C.J. Byrd, has moved to strong safety to replace the departed Kelin Johnson.
STRONGEST AREA: Georgia has two of the SEC's top linebackers in Ellerbe and Rennie Curran, who compiled 53 tackles – nine for a loss – last season despite starting only five games. Curran performed well enough to earn Freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com. Georgia's linebacking corps also should get a boost from Akeem Dent and Akeem Hebron.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Georgia must find a pass rusher to replace Marcus Howard, who had a team-high 10.5 sacks last season. The lack of depth at end grew troubling when Michael Lemon was dismissed from the team in July after being arrested on battery charges. Howard's absence could make it difficult for Georgia to lead the SEC in sacks for a second consecutive season.
OVERVIEW: Georgia has enough returning starters that it should improve upon its results from last season, when the Bulldogs ranked 14th in the nation in total defense and 18th in scoring defense. The pass rush won't be as fearsome as it was with Howard gone, but the Bulldogs should compensate with their prowess in the secondary. Allen is one of the top cornerbacks in the conference, while Jones looks like a future star in the secondary. The presence of Ellerbe and Curran at linebacker should prevent opponents from delivering many big plays. Georgia gave up a total of 43 points in its final three games last season. Look for that trend to continue this season.
Georgia probably won't miss any other departed seniors quite as much as former kicker Brandon Coutu, who never missed an extra point and made 80 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 6-for-12 from at least 50 yards. The most likely candidate to replace Coutu is true freshman Blair Walsh. Although Walsh made two 59-yard field goals as a senior at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Cardinal Gibbons, nobody knows how he might respond if he has to kick with the game on the line at Death Valley or Auburn. Brian Mimbs is back after ranking third in the SEC and 28th in the nation with an average of 42.4 yards per punt last season. Allen did a nice job on kick returns last season, but the Bulldogs will miss Mikey Henderson, who returned two punts for touchdowns in his Georgia career. Allen could be the guy there, too. The coverage units were solid last season.
Mark Richt lacks the national title that quite a few of his SEC brethren own, but that's about the only complaint anyone can offer about his head-coaching career. Richt has won two SEC titles, won outright or shared four SEC East crowns and won 79.1 percent of his games. Richt's decision to hand off play-calling responsibilities to coordinator Mike Bobo last season paid off. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez looks like a rising star in the coaching ranks, while line coach Stacy Searels proved his worth last season by working wonders with a line that featured three freshman starters. The lone change on the staff this year is the arrival of tight ends coach John Lilly from Florida State. Lilly replaces David Johnson, who left to become West Virginia's offensive line coach.
Georgia may be the most talented team in the country. So why aren't the Bulldogs ranked No. 1? Take a look at that schedule. Seven opponents are among the top 29 teams in our preseason rankings. Georgia even makes a rare appearance outside the Southeast on Sept. 20 when it heads to Arizona State. The biggest test comes late in the season, when Georgia has four consecutive games – against LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn – away from home. If Georgia somehow makes it through this schedule unscathed, nobody can question whether the Bulldogs deserve a chance to play for the national title.
Georgia ended the 2007 season as the hottest team in the country and enters this season as one of the best teams in the land. You can quibble about the inexperience on the offensive line or the loss of Marcus Howard at defensive end, but this is a team with no major holes on offense or defense. The biggest questions are how they will deal with lofty expectations and how a true freshman kicker will respond if he has to come through in a close game. And, of course, there's the not-so-small matter of getting through perhaps the nation's toughest schedule. The Bulldogs are good, but they're not quite good enough to make it through this kind of schedule without losing at least once. The Bulldogs will have to cross their fingers that an 11-2 or 12-1 record that includes an SEC title can earn a shot at the national championship. It has the past two seasons.
Steve Megargee is national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.