Stepping out on a limb

Smells like football - finally.
It's time to actually start talking about the games, what's actually happening on the field.
I for one am certainly ready.
So, let's do this.
As most of you know, the media doesn't get a lot of time here to actually observe practice for itself, but that certainly doesn't preclude someone like myself from making a few observations based on countless conversations with players, coaches, and a few "sources" from inside the iron fortress that is the Butts-Mehre Building.
So, let's talk Dawgs, and yes, allow me to offer a few predictions along the way.
As some of you know, part of my job entails doing numerous radio shows from Atlanta to New Orleans, Des Moines to Omaha and Nashville to Seattle, the questions have all been the same - when will Georgia live up to the hype?
Good question, right?
Let's see if we can figure out some answers.
For the record, yes, I was one of the individuals who picked Georgia to win the SEC East back when the votes were tabulated during SEC Media Days. My reasons were pretty simple - my belief that this defense CAN be one of the league's best, a three-year starter at quarterback and a conference schedule that, at least on paper, shapes up to be about as friendly as one can get.
That said there are still a number of concerns after being around the program for the past month during camp.
Instead of boring you to tears with detailed explanations of each one, I'll simply bullet-point mine and offer some other thoughts below:
• Left tackle: Physically, we hear that Kenarious Gates has all the physical tools to be a solid contributor and be counted on to protect Aaron Murray's blindside. That said, Gates has yet to start a game at the position, so you've got to ask yourself, how will he perform when the lights come on? Observation - Gates is a hard worker, but in my opinion he can't help but experience at least some early growing pains in regards to consistency. Coaches no doubt hope that he will work out just fine, but if not, don't be surprised to see coaches turn to freshman John Theus.
• Kicking game: Mark Richt certainly hasn't sounded all that encouraging, has he? When asked how he thought freshman kicker Marshall Morgan, Richt shrugged, saying "I don't know." Yikes. Observation - Actually, concerns over Morgan are no different than other programs sending a kicker onto the college stage for the first time - you just don't know how they'll respond. However, there are no concerns about Marshall's leg. The young man can kick the ball from 60 yards in. It's all about how he'll perform in front of 92,000-plus screaming Bulldog fans. Off hand, I think he'll do fine. Morgan appears to be very strong mentally and in my conversations with him, readily accepts the challenge his role presents. All that said, if Morgan does struggle, I don't expect Richt to wait long to give senior Jamie Lindley a try.
• Special teams: I could write a book breaking down all the issues Georgia had on special teams last year, so we'll keep this short. If the Bulldogs can't correct the mistakes that cost the team so dearly against South Carolina, and nearly lost the game at Vanderbilt, I'll take back my prediction of winning the East right now. Bottom line, all issues, particularly kickoff and punt coverage, have to be fixed. No excuses. Observation - One thing I can assure every one that fixing these issues has been on the top of Richt's agenda, even going back to the spring. According to Kirk Olivadotti, who handles the kickoff overage, he's currently got 14 players that he expects to handle the bulk of those duties. Personally, I actually think we'll see many of the same faces, albeit with a few freshmen sprinkled in. Will last year's lessons be learned? We're about to see.
• Unproven running backs: Let's me preface this by saying, I'm extremely high on what I've seen from Ken Malcome, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and actually feel better about the position than I did this time a year ago, so in a way I feel sort of funny listing them here. All that said, until they show they can "get it done" in a real game, Georgia's backfield will remain a question. Observation - Actually this is more of a prediction. Malcome, Gurley and Marshall - are they the latest version of (Kregg) Lumpkin, (Thomas) Brown and (Knowshon) Moreno? It could be. I'll step out on the limb and say yes, pencil Gurley in for close to 1,000 yards, Marshall between 600-700 and Malcome with 500-plus.
• Suspensions: Of course, we're talking about linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety Bacarri Rambo - how long will each be suspended? The guess here is, they will miss Saturday's opener, after that, we'll just have to wait and see. If their suspensions do last into next week's SEC opener at Missouri, do the Dawgs have enough capable backups to adequately take the place of two All-SEC caliber performers? Observation - I'm not so much worried about replacing Ogletree, because I think at least the numbers are OK there with Christian Robinson, Mike Gillard and Amarlo Herrera, plus the fact that Ramik Wilson can slide over from Sam linebacker, if need be. Safety, there are a few more concerns as the players expected to replace Rambo (Corey Moore, Connor Norman and perhaps Josh Harvey-Clemons) don't have a lot, if any experience.
Looking ahead
Ok, now for a few predictions.
• Murray cuts his turnover's from 18 to 10 and completes 64 percent of his passes compared to 59.1 percent of a season ago. He won't throw for quite as many yards or touchdowns when he set the school record of 35, though he'll get close with 32 or so.
• Wide receiver Chris Conley will put up numbers similar to Tavarres King of a season ago - say, 50 catches for 820 yards and seven touchdowns.
• Gurley will be the SEC Freshman of the Year.
• Saturday's start will be the first of 50-plus Theus will start on the Bulldogs' offensive line.
John Jenkins will be a member of the SEC first-team, becoming the best feared nose tackle the league has seen since Terrance Cody.
Jarvis Jones will receive more focus from opposing teams this year and won't quite achieve the stats he had a season ago, but could have a better overall campaign (yes, I know that sounds strange). But because so much focus will be on stopping him, it's going to open up more opportunities for teammates to make plays and improve their overall numbers.
Shawn Williams will lead the team in interceptions.
Malcolm Mitchell will catch a touchdown pass and return both an interception and a punt for a score this season.
• Defensively, Georgia will challenge Alabama and LSU for top honors.
• Offensively, Georgia will average more yards and more points than a season ago.
The final analysis
OK, now the big one - how will the Bulldogs fare in 2012?
Let's break it down like this, three stages, if you will:
Take nothing away from Buffalo, but Georgia's season starts next week in Columbia, Mo. against Missouri, a team I believe has the capability to give the Bulldogs all sorts of fits. Get by that one, then the next three weeks sets up nicely.
Florida Atlantic will obviously not be a challenge, and honestly, I don't see either Vanderbilt or Tennessee posing "that big" of a challenge coming into Sanford Stadium on Sept. 22 and 29.
This brings us to stage two - South Carolina.
There have been some big games in this rivalry, but this particular contest has the potential to be the biggest of them all. It would not shock me a bit to see both of these teams undefeated, setting up what could conceivably be a battle of Top 5 teams. Don't laugh, it could happen.
As for the result, here's where I get a little squeamish (deep breath) - as long as Georgia does not have the same special teams blunders and Murray can manage the offense without turning the ball over, I like the Bulldogs' chances. Still, this is one that could go either way. Flip a coin.
As far as stage three goes, this is where it gets interesting. Beat South Carolina, and that's when the drums of "can Georgia compete for a national championship" start to beat throughout the land, as you'll start to hear national pundits give more love to the Dawgs.
Six games will remain. I see Georgia beating Kentucky, Florida, Ole Miss, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech. The only question in my mind is Auburn. Yes, the Bulldogs blitzed the Tigers last year, but it would be foolish to discount the Plainsmen because of what happened a season ago.
OK, final drum-roll … Since I picked Georgia back in July to win the SEC East, we'll stick with that. However, as I sit here today before a single game has been played, I see Georgia finishing the regular season 11-1. That will still be enough for the Bulldogs to make it back to Atlanta. Unfortunately, as of right now, I still see both LSU and Alabama just a little bit better.
So, while I do think Georgia can close the gap in regards to the Tigers and Tide this season, I still see the Bulldogs falling just short in the SEC title game to either of those two programs and finish with a record of 11-2.
Depending on whether or not LSU or Alabama make it back to the BCS game, 11-2 could well be good enough to get Georgia back to the Sugar Bowl. If not, looks like my left-over park hopper pass at Disney World will come in handy after all.
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