by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

At the end of the 2007 season there were those who thought Georgia belonged in the BCS title game. Going into the 2008 campaign, the Bulldogs were preseason No. 1. But since then, UGA’s football has shown progressive slippage. The Dawgs won a respectable 10 games, but fell far short of those national title projections, in 2008, then slipped to 8-5 in 2009 and fell flat in 2010. UGA stumbled out the gate with a 1-4 mark (remember, star WR A.J. Green was suspended for the 1st 4 games), and while it rallied to win five of the next seven, the team finished only 6-7 overall, including a lackluster 10-6 loss vs. UCF in the Liberty Bowl...a result that really turned up the heat on HC Mark Richt.

That bowl loss means the Dawgs are coming off their first losing season since 1996, and now 11th-year mentor Mark Richt is clearly sitting on the proverbial “hot seat” in 2012. “I don’t feel any pressure, “ Richt says. “None at all.” But when one of the program’s iconic performers starts criticizing you, there is cause for concern. “For the last three years our program has been God-awful,” exclaimed former Bulldogs QB and Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton in January on an Atlanta radio station. “I think the signs are that we have a program that is in big trouble.”

But Richt—who claims this year’s recruiting haul is his best in 11 seasons—has already made changes to help facilitate his squad’s return to the forefront of a wide-open SEC East. Richt fired his strength and conditioning coach, has revamped the nutrition program, and has shedded some administrative duties within his program to concentrate more on football. That’s a start.

Five starters return to a semi-reloading attack (32 ppg LY) led by poised, athletic soph QB Aaron Murray (3,049 YP, 24 TDs, only 8 ints.), who made a big splash in his debut campaign. Tough-minded Murray, who, according to Richt, throws a more catchable ball this year, must operate without the top two pass catchers from year ago, aforementioned superstar Green and No. 2 wideout Kris Durham. Softening the blow is burgeoning jr. TE Orson Charles (26 catches, 422 yds. 2 TDs) and talented sr. WR Taverres King (27 grabs LY), who is the leading candidate to become the go-to receiver after Green's departure. Even with RB Washaun Ealy (811 YR, 11 TDs) given his release due to off-the-field issues during the offseason, the lower-ranked ground attack (only 142.6 ypg LY; 4.1 ypc; 10th in SEC) has a chance to move up the ladder behind sr. RB Caleb King (430 YR) and much-ballyhooed frosh RB Isaiah Crowell, who is considered by multiple recruiting services to the No.1 prospect coming from the prep ranks this year. The unsettled OL (only 2 starters back), suffered a setback with likely season-ending injury to projected starter Trinton Sturdivant, who suffered another torn ACL.

The seasoned defense (seven starters back; 22 ppg; but yielded 31 ppg or more 5 times) is notable improvement in 2011, thanks to a better understanding of 2nd-year d.c. Todd Grantham’s 3-4 alignment. Grantham, who believes he’s getting the right people to fit the system, is thrilled to have more brute strength in the middle with RS soph 6-6, 350-pound NT Kwame Geathers (defensive MVP in spring) and 6-4, 340-pound juco NT John Jenkins. And coaches are counting on head-hunting 6-3, 241 RS soph “Sam” LB Jarvis Jones (Southern Cal transfer) to quickly fill the big shoes of departed playmaker Justin Houston, who had a team-high 10 sacks LY. The secondary returns intact. But that unit, featuring top guy CB/returner sr. Brandon Boykin (has three career 100-yd. kick return TDs!), needs to improve communication and minimize big-plays after allowing an SEC-worst 41% on 3rd down LY.

There may not be a better kicking game in America, with deadly PK Blair Walsh (20 of 23 FGs LY) and strong-legged P Drew Butler (44.5 avg; son of longtime NFL kicker Kevin Butler), who is a former Ray Guy award winner while at UGa in thew early '80s.

Summary...With Dawgs playing 4 of the first games in their home state—including critical SEC East showdown vs. LY’s division champ and TY’s preseason favorite South Carolina om Sept. 10—successful Mark Richt (his winning % of .738 is 4th among active FBS coaches!) has a good chance to build early momentum in pursuit of a winnable East title and return to a coveted BCS bowl. We believe unfazed, athletic triggerman Murray, who clearly possesses the “it” factor, is primed for a super soph season with support from frosh gem RB Crowell. Plus, there is more speed and the players are reportedly in better condition to play the kind of attacking style d..c. Todd Grantham wants to employ (LY’s run defense was the worst since 1996!). But anything less than a strong rebound from LY's 6-7 mark, plus a desirable bowl berth, could spell trouble for Richt.

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