SEC East Preview - 1st Place: Georgia
We're reached the pinnacle of the SEC East, and that's where we'll find the Georgia Bulldogs. You heard it here first - Georgia is going to be good. Very good.
OK, so you probably didn't hear it here first - they Bulldogs are on the cover of SI's College Football Preview - they're the magazine's pick for the national title. SI is not alone - ESPN and the Sporting News also have them at number one.
The only question in the minds of most observers is whether or not Georgia can deal with a schedule that is... punishing. Internet football guru Phil Steele went so far as to note the top 5 reasons Georgia won't be unbeaten - @ South Carolina, @ Arizona State, @ LSU, Florida (in Jacksonville), and @ Auburn. That's a pretty nasty schedule by any measure - and doesn't include home games with Alabama and Tennessee or a game at Kentucky.
Much of the optimism about this year's edition of the Dawgs is their 2007 finish. After losing to South Carolina and Tennessee early, the Bulldogs had a difficult time in Nashville, playing uninspired football on the way to a 20-17 victory over Vanderbilt.
Mark Richt attempted to fix that problem by demanding a celebration - and in fact an excessive celebration penalty - after Georgia's first score against Florida. His players responded:
After rolling Florida 42-30, the Bulldogs won the balance of their games, including 41-10 pasting of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. They looked like world beaters, and most observers expect that to carry over nicely into 2008. This is a team that lost just four starters on offense and four on defense.
But can they manage this schedule?
Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno constitute the best QB/RB combination in the SEC - possibly in the country. However, they're not without fault.
Bama fans who saw the overtime game with Georgia last year in Bryant-Denny know how good - and how bad - Stafford can be. The Bama game was a microcosm of not only Stafford's year, but also his career. Early in games, he often looks lackluster - almost bored. He threw two picks in the Bama game - one in the first quarter and one early in the third.
However, when the chips are down, Stafford comes to play. The Tide got the ball first in overtime, and moved the ball 0 yards. Leigh Tiffin kicked a 42 yard field goal. On the first play of Georgia's first overtime possession, Stafford dropped back, and the rest is history:
For Georgia to win it all this year, Stafford must be engaged at all times and showcase his obvious talent. The games are too tough this season for Stafford to save his heroics until late.
Knowshon Moreno doesn't need to improve. He can turn in the same performance as last year - 1334 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns - and the Dawgs will be just fine, thank you. The only issue at running back is a lack of depth. If Moreno is nicked, it could have disastrous consequences for the Bulldogs. Talented redshirt freshman Caleb King looked good in the spring G-Day Game, but he is entirely untested in actual games.
Georgia's hulking vet FB Brannan Southerland is there to pave the way for Moreno - in all but the first few games. Assuming he recovers from foot surgery on time, Southerland should be back in action around the time the Bulldogs head west for an early season test at Arizona State.
Georgia also looks great at receiver. With the exception of vet Mohamed Massaquoi (15.3 yards per catch in '07), the Dawgs lack experience at the position, but certainly not talent. Demiko Goodman moonlights on the track team. Kris Durham (6'5") has great size and came on strong down the stretch last season. Tavarres King enrolled in the spring and looked great - he 37 TDs in high school.
And that's before we even get to AJ Green. Green was the second ranked receiver prospect in the country this year (behind Julio Jones) and has been drawing rave reviews from all corners this fall. He's expected to contribute right away.
If you're looking for a weak link in the offense, it's the line. Georgia started three freshman last year - and they're now returning starters. With the exception of junior Vince Vance, it's expected to be all freshman and sophomores this year. In addition to experience, depth is an issue. Injuries on the line will mean untested players are given a trial by fire.
However, even when Georgia has problems, they are minimal. Guard Clint Boling will miss the first 2 games of the season following a DUI arrest - those games are Georgia Southern and Central Michigan. I think they'll be OK.
The final question mark for Georgia is the departure of placekicker Brandon Coutu. He was a four year starter, and there's no experience at that position on the team.
From the always insightful Sunday Morning Quarterback:
The stars on the defense are still more prospective than fulfilled, with the possible exception of scout favorite Jeff Owens in the middle of the line, but it’s very possible the defense will field a lineup made up entirely of guys rated in the top dozen at their position out of high school. This is exceptional recruiting, retention and development: at worst, there won’t be a regular on the defense who was ranked outside of his position class’ top 25 by Rivals, and even the feted units at USC and LSU can’t say that across the board. All the noobs in the secondary are now upperclassmen who ended last year by holding André Woodson and Colt Brennan to their worst games of the season.
There's inexperience on the defensive line, but (obviously) lots of talent to make up for it. The depth of talent on the line is fairly impressive - coordinator Willie Martinez expects to play somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 guys up front. They'll miss departed sack-master Marcus Howard (10.5 sacks in 2007), but Martinez's defenses have stacked up 42 sacks last year, 33 in 2006, and 34 in 2005 (first, fourth and third in the conference, respectively). The scheme is solid if there's talent behind it. Clearly there is at Georgia.
The Dawgs worked almost exclusively in a nickel package in the spring, so only two linebackers play. But lInebacker is where this year's star lives. MLB Dannell Ellerbe is a returning all-SEC performer, and led the team with 93 tackles. Sophomore Rennie Curran will occupy the weak side backer position. Curran earned a starting spot in five games last year, improving throughout his freshman campaign. He also had a great spring, earning the "Coffee County Hustle Award".
There are three returning starters in the defensive backfield. The returning corners aren't huge (Asher Allen at 5'10" and Prince Miller at 5'8") but they are talented and athletic. Two reserves has also started games for the Bulldogs.
The safeties are mostly interchangeable in Martinez's system - everyone learns how to play both the free and strong safety spots. Sophomores Reshad Jones and C.J. Byrd are big hitters who will patrol the deep middle with a mean streak. Jones was a starter every game last season, while Byrd only started 2 (but played in all 13). Their experience a year ago will pay dividends in 2008.
The game with Florida in Jacksonville will almost certainly decide the SEC East champ. Last year's celebration will certainly provide the Gators with motivation and make it an exceptionally interesting and entertaining game. The late season matchup at Auburn will be the last (and possibly most fierce) test Georgia will face before heading to Atlanta for the SEC title game.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1)
They'll stumble along the way - quite possibly at Auburn or even at South Carolina - but they'll take care of business against Florida. And, as the guys at Dawg Sports pointed out, the pure brutality of the schedule means it's likely one loss will be good enough for a shot at the BCS title - if they can win the SEC Championship game against another top-flight team.
This should be a fascinating season for a Georgia team that's better equipped to compete for the title than any since 1980's Herschel Walker/Buck Belue led team. That team went all the way to beat Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl for the National Championship. Don't be surprised if Georgia plays for the title in Miami this year.
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