The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 23rd-ranked Georgia Bulldogs have won eight or more games in 13 consecutive season, and the road to extending that streak begins on Saturday afternoon in Athens against the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns.
Head coach Rickey Bustle continues to lead Louisiana, which finished a mediocre 6-6 a year ago, including a 4-4 mark versus Sun Belt Conference competition. The program has been competing on the gridiron since 1901, so the fact that it has only participated in two bowl games suggests that there isn't a great track record of success. There are 43 letterwinners back in the fold this season, including 13 starters between the offense and defense.
Georgia returns 17 starters when factoring in the specialists, including 10 starters on the offense side of the ball. Entering his 10th season with the Bulldogs, Mark Richt has the longest tenure at his current school of any active SEC coach. Richt's teams haven't been nationally relevant the last couple of seasons, and he is eager to get Georgia back to elite status. Put simply, the 8-5 finish of 2009 isn't good enough.
"A lot of people would say that's really not that bad of a year with it being a winning season," says Richt. "But the time that we have been here, everyone was getting used to 10-win seasons, top-10 finishes, banging away at the Eastern Division, being in a position to finish as high as No. 2 or No. 3, and being in a position to play for an SEC Championship. All those things are what we aspire to do and what we expect to do."
This game marks the first-ever meeting between Louisiana and Georgia on the gridiron.
The Louisiana offense is led by quarterback Chris Masson, who threw for 2,406 yards last season while completing 59.5 percent of his tosses. Masson only had 10 touchdown passes, but his 222 completions were just two shy of the school record. The Cajuns generated 22.2 ppg in 2009, and that numbers needs to improve this season. Eclipsing that average in the opener seems unlikely, however, considering the quality of the competition.
Masson will benefit from a dangerous group of wideouts, as well as a talented tight end in Ladarius Green. A Mackey Award candidate last season, the 6-6, 225-pound Green led the Cajuns with 533 receiving yards despite missing three games. On a down note, there is no proven performer at the tailback position, and the offensive line lost three starters from a year ago.
On the defensive side of the ball, Grant Fleming is the man to keep an eye on for Louisiana. A senior linebacker, Fleming earned All-Sun Belt honorable mention accolades after registering 89 total tackles. He has been placed on the 2010 Lombardi Award watch list for his efforts.
"We are very proud that Grant is being considered for this award," said Bustle. "He is our team leader on defense and we consider him an impact player."
Overall, the Louisiana defense forced 26 turnovers last year, ranking in the national top 30. With three starters back in the secondary, interceptions may be plentiful. Still, the Cajuns ranked 106th nationally in sacks a year ago, so don't be surprised if they make a concerted effort to pressure the Georgia QB in this opener.
Speaking of the Bulldogs' signal caller, redshirt freshman Aaron Murray, a prized recruit with special talent, won the job in camp and will be the focus of Bulldog fans against Louisiana. He will certainly benefit from the presence of A.J. Green, the team's star receiver who now enters his junior campaign. Green made 53 catches for 808 yards and six touchdowns, numbers that actually fell short of the pace he set as a freshman.
The hope is that Georgia will be able to run the ball consistently behind one of the top offensive lines in the SEC. Clint Boling, a stud left tackle, is one of four returning starters, and the group will open holes for junior Caleb King. Washaun Ealey posted 717 yards and three touchdowns on 125 carries a year ago and was expected to be the lead back this season, but he became the eighth Bulldog to be arrested this year when he was apprehended for hit and run and driving on a suspended license. Ealey is suspended indefinitely.
Georgia has a new defensive coordinator in Todd Grantham, who has spent the last 11 years in the NFL.
"It's been a long time since I have been on the college sidelines, but once the game starts, it's still the familiar game that I know out there," said Grantham after a recent scrimmage in preparation for this opener.
Georgia welcomes back just four starters on the defensive side of the ball, so expect to see plenty of new faces on Saturday. Grantham is orchestrating the switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, a move designed to create an attacking style. Brandon Boykin, a junior, is the only returning starter in the secondary, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Boykin did intercept three passes last season, the most of any returnee. Linebacker Justin Houston has star potential, as he impressed everyone with 7.5 sacks a year ago. Along the defensive line, Demarcus Dobbs, a senior, figures to be the leader, but he is listed as questionable with an ankle injury.
There is no question that Georgia is far more talented than Louisiana and will win this game rather easily. All eyes will be on Murray, and he certainly has the talent to excel.