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January 15, 2010

The Window of Opportunity is Wide Open

The opportunity is present for the Bulldogs to have a very good 2010 season.

Most Georgia football fans have already started to contemplate the 2010 season. For some, it began as early as Oct. 10, following the embarrassing 45-19 loss at Tennessee.

Personally, it starts every year when I observe the pre-preseason rankings that usually are released shortly after the conclusion of each season.

This year was no different for me. The only difference compared to years past was seeing the Bulldogs’ placement, or lack thereof, in a couple of these premature sets of rankings.

Of the two I observed, one ranked Georgia at No. 23 in the nation for next season, while the other did not even have the Dawgs in its top 25.

I’m wondering if these two sets of rankings did exactly what some of the others released closer to the start of the season are often guilty of—putting very little thought behind their positioning of teams.

Many online media outlets and preseason magazines, annuals, guides, etc., while unveiling their summertime rankings, have many other tasks to carry out, like write features and articles, sell advertisements, report on baseball, and get ready for the basketball season, leaving little time to invest into their preseason college football rankings.

They’ll look at a team like Georgia, for example, who recorded an 8-5 mark the previous season, returns 10 starters on offense, but loses its quarterback and seven starters on defense. They conclude the Bulldogs should be preseason ranked 20-something at the very best. Then they quickly move onto “analyzing” the next team.

Instead, if they would spend a little extra time examining teams for the upcoming football season, they’d likely realize on the contrary, Georgia could very well be a top-15 or better team in 2010.

Offensively, the Bulldogs return seven offensive linemen with starting experience who have combined to make 155 career starts—remarkable. The returning skill players include backs Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, tight end Orson Charles, and wide receiver A.J. Green, one of the best players in college football.

Granted, Georgia does lose its starting quarterback. However, in the Bulldogs’ three biggest wins in 2009 (Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Texas A&M), what did all three games have in common in regard to Georgia’s quarterback play? Little was asked from departing senior Joe Cox. In the three most significant victories, Cox averaged fewer than 20 pass attempts; in the other 10 games, Bulldog quarterbacks averaged nearly 30.

Whether it's Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, or Logan Gray under center for Georgia in 2010, as long as the offensive line and running game play consistently well (as should be expected), the quarterback should only need to manage the offense instead of attempting to lead the team to victory.

The Bulldogs had one of the best special teams units in the nation in 2009. In returning college football’s greatest punter, one of the best placekickers, and Brandon Boykin, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns, much of the same can be expected this year.

Now, if Georgia could only learn how to cover and tackle on a kickoff...

Defensively, seven starters will be missed, and there is a concern at the tackle position. However, the Bulldogs had depth in ’09, and those backups should be able to fill in adequately.

For instance, in the defensive backfield, the only returning starter is cornerback Boykin. Notwithstanding, upon further inspection, one can see reserves Branden Smith, Bacarri Rambo, Quintin Banks, Makiri Pugh, Vance Cuff, and Sanders Commings all return. These returnees corralled 60 percent of Georgia’s interceptions last season.

Actually, the Bulldogs should improve on a pass defense that ranked in the bottom half of the FBS in 2009—although this is likely not the opinion of most of the aforementioned preseason rankings, merely considering just one starter returns to the secondary.

To be successful defensively in 2010, Georgia must reduce its number of penalties, cut down on allowing opponents favorable field position, and above all, force more turnovers. The Bulldogs have not accomplished these tasks the last two seasons, which is why their defense allowed more than 25 points but only 326 yards per game in 2008 and 2009 combined.

Simply put, Georgia allowed too many “easy” scores the last two seasons. In 2009, there were only three games where the Bulldogs had an advantage in turnovers over its opponent: the three significant wins I mentioned before—Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Texas A&M. In addition, there were just three games where Georgia was penalized for fewer than 40 yards. You guessed it—against the same three opponents.

Good news is these three victories came in Georgia’s final four games of the year. Equipped with a few new defensive coaches, the Bulldogs should be able to ride that momentum into the 2010 campaign.

As far as Georgia’s competition within its division, Tennessee loses most of its offense, safety Eric Berry to the NFL, plays in Athens, and doesn’t didn't even have a head coach at the present time until today.

Like most every season, Florida, despite the indecisiveness of its head coach, will be very good and probably hand us another defeat in Jacksonville. Keep in mind, though, the Gators are in a semi-rebuilding mode, losing five starters on offense and six on defense, and even more could decide to go early to the NFL. If there was ever a season in the foreseeable future for Georgia to beat Florida, it’s in 2010.

As far as South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, well, they’re just that—three schools that combined have yet to represent the SEC East in the 18 conference title games.

In looking over a favorable 2010 schedule, if any of the Bulldogs’ 12 games were played today, I see only two where Georgia would be underdogs (Florida and at Auburn). In 2009, the Bulldogs were underdogs in five of their games.

At this point in time, I believe the Dawgs in 2010 will finish at least one game and probably two better than they were a year ago, and I tend to be rather pessimistic.

As far as winning the SEC East and/or finishing amongst the nation’s top 15, or even top 10, the opportunity is certainly there and a good possibility for Georgia, despite what the pre-preseason rankings indicate.

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