Photo courtesy of Georgia Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Led by 11th-year head coach Mark Richt, the Georgia Bulldogs put together a very strong showing in 2011 with a 10-4 overall record. They went 7-1 in the SEC, winning the Eastern Division and earning the right to play LSU in the conference championship game, but ultimately fell short of a BCS bowl bid by losing to the Tigers, 42-10.
The Bulldogs dropped their first two games to No. 5 Boise State (35-21) and No. 12 South Carolina (45-42), but then followed that up with a 10-game win streak leading up to the SEC title tilt, with key victories during that stretch coming at Tennessee (20-12) and Georgia Tech (31-17), and at home versus Florida (24-20), Auburn (45-7) and Mississippi State (24-10).
In the Outback Bowl, Georgia lost a hard-fought battle to No. 12 Michigan State, 33-30 in triple-overtime, but still finished the season ranked 18th in both major polls.
OFFENSE: The Bulldogs were one of the more potent offensive teams in the SEC a year ago, ranking only behind Arkansas and Alabama in total offense with 408.5 yards per game, while putting up 32 points per game. The catalyst was without question quarterback Aaron Murray, who completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 3,149 yards and a league-best 35 touchdowns, earning him Second Team All-SEC honors in the process. After showing improvement in each of his first two seasons as a starter, the junior hopes to take the next step in 2012 as a potential Heisman contender.
Murray has an array of receivers to distribute the ball to, led by senior Tavarres King, who tallied career-highs in yards (705) and touchdowns (8) in 2011. Despite being part of one of the SEC's more reliable receiving corps, King is confident he and his bunch can improve.
"I certainly have to step up my level of play," King said. "I think that I'm going to do that and continue to be consistent for this team. Losing Malcolm (Mitchell) is a big blow to our offense, but my group of guys as receivers - I've got Michael Bennett, Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wooten - those group of guys are ones that you can count on week-in and week-out. I feel like we can do a good job though."
Running back Isaiah Crowell made a solid contribution in his freshman year, rushing for 901 yards and 5 scores en route to winning the SEC Freshman of the Year award, but following an arrest this summer, he was dismissed from the team. Taking over the starting tailback job will be sophomore Ken Malcome, who rushed for just 183 yards last season.
Having bookend tackles on the offensive line is a huge key to success in both the passing and running game, and Murray and Malcome are sure glad to have veteran linemen Kenarious Gates and Kolton Houston back for another run.
DEFENSE: To go along with its efficient offense in 2011, Georgia had a stout defense - ranking fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (19.6 ppg) and third in total defense (268.9 ypg), while also intercepting a league-best 20 passes.
Returning to the fold this season is one of the nation's best playmakers in Jarvis Jones, who was named to the All-SEC First Team, and a First Team All- American after logging 70 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, and 13.5 sacks last year. Hoping to cement himself as a top-tier NFL prospect, Jones will have plenty of motivation to improve.
Safety Barcarri Rambo was just as big a game-changer in the secondary with a conference-best 8 interceptions, but he is suspended for the first four games of the season for a drug-related infraction.
Other key members of the Georgia defense returning are safety Shawn Williams (75 tackles, 4 interceptions), cornerback Sanders Commings (55 tackles, 1 interception) and linebacker Michael Gilliard (80 tackles, 7 tackles for loss).
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game will feature two freshman, with Marshall Morgan as the placekicker and Collin Barber the punter. With primary kick and punt returner Brandon Boykin now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bulldogs will need to find a replacement.
OUTLOOK: With the return of Murray and King on offense and a solid core of players on defense, Georgia should be as good if not better that it was last year, but Richt is careful not to look too far ahead.
"We haven't done anything yet," Richt said. "We haven't played a game. We haven't won a game. We know our league is tremendous. We know the Eastern Division is going to be a rough road."
"All we're trying to do is prepare the best we can to hopefully play the very best we can play and maximize the potential of this football team," he continued. "Hopefully that will be good enough to get back to Atlanta and hopefully play a little bit better this time around."
Although the SEC is a difficult conference, the East is much more winnable than the West - which has Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and Auburn. There's some question marks regarding the running game, but if the Bulldogs are able to hold off South Carolina, they'll have a great shot at making it back to the SEC Championship Game.