Isaiah Crowell looks to lead a much-improved Georgia rushing attack.
The Georgia Bulldogs check in at No. 8 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: QB Aaron Murray
Last season Murray posted his second-straight 3,000-yard campaign, while setting the Georgia single-season record for touchdown passes (35) and touchdown responsibility (37). The junior was a second-team All-SEC selection as he finished second in the conference in passing yards and fifth in passing efficiency. Murray is already third on Georgia’s career touchdown passes list with 59 and fifth in total offense. He needs just 14 touchdown passes in 2012 to break David Greene’s career mark for touchdown passes and another 3,000-yard season would place him third all-time in Bulldogs’ history in total offense. If Murray needs to improve in any area, it would be to cut down on his interceptions. Besides leading the SEC in touchdown passes in 2011 by a wide margin (Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson was second with 24), he also led the conference in interceptions with 14.
Upset Alert: at Missouri (Sept. 8)
Missouri would like nothing better than to beat Georgia in its first game as a member of the SEC. It’s the second game on both team’s schedules and a win for the Tigers would not only serve as “proof” that they belong in the SEC, but it also would give them an early leg up on the Bulldogs in the East Division standings. The Georgia defense will be missing a few key players in its secondary due to suspension, so Missouri’s offense, which ranked No. 12 in the country in 2011, is not the ideal opponent to face. It also doesn’t hurt the Tigers’ chances that the game is in Columbia. Since 2005, Missouri is 35-8 at Memorial Stadium under Gary Pinkel, and the Tigers are 11-1 at home over the last two seasons.
Revenge Game: at South Carolina (Oct. 6)
Georgia went into last season’s game against South Carolina coming off of a disappointing opening loss to Boise State in the Georgia Dome. The Gamecocks then proceeded to add to the Bulldogs’ misery by capitalizing on three turnovers in a 45-42 win in Sanford Stadium. The back-to-back losses had everyone talking about head coach Mark Richt’s job security. Fortunately for Richt, those conversations stopped after the team rolled off 10 straight wins to capture the SEC East crown and a trip to the SEC Championship Game. Still, Richt and the rest of the Bulldogs remember all too well how last season’s meeting was decided and would like to return the favor to the Gamecocks on their home turf the first weekend in October. If the Bulldogs want to leave Columbia with a win, the defense will need to do a much better job against the run. In last season’s contest, South Carolina rushed for 253 yards, 176 of those courtesy of Marcus Lattimore, which was the most Georgia gave up in a game in 2011.
Trap Game: vs. Georgia Tech (Nov. 24)
Unless Georgia Tech emerges as the top team in the ACC’s Coastal Division, Georgia will have more on the line by the time the two in-state rivals meet up Thanksgiving weekend. If all goes according to plan, Georgia will head into this contest knowing that it has another game the following Saturday – the SEC Championship. If that’s the case, then the Bulldogs’ BCS fate will be decided by the outcome of their next game and not this one against the Yellow Jackets. However, there’s also the possibility that Georgia could head into the SEC title game undefeated or with just one loss. Under that scenario, the Bulldogs would not be able to afford a loss to Georgia Tech if they wanted to even remain in the national title discussion headed into the SEC Championship Game. A Yellow Jackets’ win under these circumstances would be the epitome of a “stinging” loss for Georgia fans, no?
Biggest Game AND Season-Defining Moment: SEC Championship (Dec. 1)
If all goes according to plan this fall, Georgia should come out on top in the SEC East and make a second straight trip to the conference championship game. If that happens, the Bulldogs will be presented with a golden opportunity to put the struggles of 2009 and ’10 and the disappointing end to the ’11 campaign behind them if they are able to knock off the best of the SEC West, presumably LSU or Alabama. Besides defeating one of the nation’s top teams and being crowned as the champion of the nation’s toughest conference, Georgia would secure no worse than its first BCS bowl invitation since the 2007 season. In fact, if everything were to fall into place (see Trap Game), a win in the SEC Championship Game could potentially result in Georgia getting the opportunity to win its first national title since 1980.
Defensive MVP: LB Jarvis Jones
Jones had to sit out the 2010 season following his transfer from USC. If his 2011 campaign is any indication, he was well worth the wait. In his first season at Georgia, Jones wreaked havoc on the SEC as he became the school’s first position player to be named a consensus All-American since 2005. Jones also was a Butkus Award finalist who led the SEC and finished fifth in the nation in sacks per game, while also leading the conference in tackles for loss (16th nationally). Jones’ total of 13.5 sacks in 2011 was a half-sack shy of David Pollack’s school single-season record of 14, which he set in 2002. And he did all of this as a sophomore. The good news for the rest of the SEC is chances are he will only be around for one more season, as he considered leaving early for the NFL this year. The bad news is he will be around for one more season.
Unsung Hero: DE Abry Jones
Georgia’s other Jones went from a part-time starter in 2010 to a full-time starter in 2011 and certainly produced like one. The senior posted career bests across the board last season, finishing with 48 tackles (28 solo), seven tackles for loss, four sacks, three pass breakups and a forced fumble. At the conclusion of the season, Jones was named one of the recipients of the team’s Most Improved Player Awards on the defense. Jones’ presence on the defensive line and his production from his defensive end position was one of the reasons why the Bulldogs finished fifth in the nation in total defense and 11th in rushing defense in 2011.
Newcomer to Watch: TE Jay Rome
Rome has seen more action on the basketball court rather than the football field to this point, but that figures to change this season for the redshirt freshman. Rome played in seven games for Georgia’s basketball team last season, during which he scored a total of two points, pulled down seven rebounds and two steals in 17 minutes of court action. The production coaches are hoping for this fall is in terms of catches, yards and, hopefully, touchdowns as Rome and junior Arthur Lynch will get the first crack at replacing the production of Orson Charles. Charles, who earned first-team All-SEC honors and tied for second on the team with 45 catches and five touchdown receptions in 2011, was Georgia’s lone early entry into this year’s NFL Draft. The Cincinnati Bengals took Charles in the fourth round and now quarterback Aaron Murray is hoping Rome or Lynch will be able to develop into a reliable target in the Bulldogs’ passing game. Lynch may have more experience than Rome, but he has caught a total of two passes in his two previous seasons, whereas Rome was a highly regarded in-state tight end prospect coming out of Valdosta High School. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, Rome hauled in a 66-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Christian LeMay in the spring game.
Comeback Player: OL Kolton Houston
Houston sat out last year due to NCAA “eligibility issues” and entered spring practice fighting for playing time at one of the guard positions on Georgia’s revamped offensive line. By the end of spring practice, however, the sophomore from Buford, Ga., was the starter at right tackle. Offensive line coach Will Friend apparently saw enough from the former Under Armour All-American to not only switch him from guard to tackle, but to also tab him as the presumptive starter headed into fall practice. Whether Houston is able to retain the starting assignment by the time Georgia opens its 2012 season against Buffalo on Sept. 1 remains to be seen. However, given the fact that the Bulldogs are looking to replace three starters, all of whom were taken in this year’s NFL Draft, the opportunity is clearly there for someone to emerge and lay claim to one of these jobs. And it appears Houston is already on his way to doing just that.
Freshman to Watch I: RB Keith Marshall
Even though Georgia is returning four of its top five rushers from last season, led by reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Isaiah Crowell (850 yards rushing, five TDs), don’t be surprised if Marshall gets his share of touches before the 2012 season is finished. Marshall was one of the top running back prospects in the nation coming out of Millbrook High School in Raleigh, N.C. He enrolled in January to participate in spring practice, but suffered a hamstring injury that limited his involvement and kept him from participating in the spring game. However, Marshall, who rushed for 1,891 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior, still figures to be a part of what should be a spirited competition once fall practice begins. Besides Marshall and Crowell, others vying for carries in the Bulldogs’ backfield in 2012 include senior Richard Samuel, junior Brandon Harton, sophomore Ken Malcome and incoming freshman Todd Gurley. Gurley, like Marshall, is also a highly regarded recruit from North Carolina, and it was actually Marshall who helped convince Gurley to sign with Georgia.
Freshman to Watch II: LB Josh Harvey-Clemons
Georgia’s top recruit on the defensive side, Harvey-Clemons was rated one of the top linebacker prospects in the nation and one of the top players in Georgia after starring at Lowndes High School in Valdosta. The Bulldogs are in great shape at linebacker with All-American Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Christian Robinson and others, but the coaching staff is already thinking of ways to get Harvey-Clemons on the field, despite the fact that he hasn’t even arrived on campus yet. There has already been talk that the talented freshman will see time at both linebacker and safety on defense, and perhaps even make an appearance on offense lined up as a tight end or receiver, especially once the Bulldogs are in the red zone.
Position to Watch: Offensive Line
Georgia saw three offensive linemen — Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Justin Anderson — taken in April’s NFL Draft, which means there will be several new faces along the line come this fall. Combined those three made 125 starts for the Bulldogs, meaning quarterback Aaron Murray and the running game will be relying on a relatively inexperienced unit in 2012.
The returning starters are juniors Chris Burnette (right guard) and Kenarious Gates (left tackle). After that is where things get interesting as evident by the fact that sophomore Kolton Houston, who missed all of last season due to “eligibility issues,” is currently penciled in as the starter at right tackle. Another sophomore, David Andrews appears to have an early hold on the starting assignment at center.
There is no lack of candidates for the final spot, left guard, including juniors Austin Long and Dallas Lee and sophomores Mark Beard and Watts Dantzler. There’s also incoming freshman John Theus, the No. 2 offensive lineman prospect in the nation by Athlon Sports.
Whoever the starting five end up being come Georgia’s Sept. 1 opener against Buffalo, the coaching staff is hoping that it’s a unit that can come together and do its part to help the Bulldogs reach their goals for the 2012 season, namely a SEC championship.
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