Georgia future again looks bright

semerson@macon.comDecember 18, 2011 

ATHENS -- The period between the end of the regular season and a bowl can be a different one for a football program. In Georgia’s case, it has marked a subtle shift to planning for next year.

Head coach Mark Richt gave that away during his Thursday news conference, when talking about the motivation for winning the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2.

“It’s also the first game of 2012, and the way everything is set up in the BCS system, I think how you finish has something to do with how people see you when the season begins the next year,” Richt said. “I think it’s important for the future, too, to play well and try to get the victory.”

Yes, Richt mentioned the BCS. It’s not an outlandish thought for a Georgia team that has won 10 games and is due to return its quarterback, a consensus All-American on defense and a number of other starters.

Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has been with the program for more than a decade, so he has experienced the lead-up to being a preseason top-five or top-10 team. He granted that this could be another one.

“It could be, just based on the number of wins we had this year and what we could have and the number of players that we could possibly have back,” Bobo said. “You’re gonna have a chance to be ranked real high.”

Richt has been adamant that the focus will be on winning the game, rather than working in new players. Of course, it’s easy to hold to that with 16 starters on offense and defense set to return.

So the bowl figures to be a blend of trying to put a good cap on this season and lifting off to a possible top-10 preseason ranking for 2012. There are several reasons for Georgia to feel optimistic.

The schedule

Georgia had a fairly easy schedule this year, and it could be even easier in 2012. All four of its non-conference games are at home, with Georgia Tech the only opponent from a BCS conference.

And the Bulldogs may catch a break in the SEC’s re-worked schedule: Reports out of Missouri are that school will open its SEC membership by hosting Georgia early in the season. While that may not be an easy game, it could replace a previously scheduled trip to Alabama.

The defense

Georgia made a huge leap in the second year under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. And only two seniors are starters, while junior safety Bacarri Rambo (a first-team All-American) is contemplating jumping for the NFL draft.

But redshirt sophomore Jarvis Jones, the SEC leader in sacks, already has ruled out leaving. The Bulldogs also have players with star potential: sophomore linebacker Alec Ogletree, junior safety Shawn Williams and nose tackles John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers.

Grantham said that finding a nickel cornerback would be the main issue at spring practice. If that’s the defense’s biggest problem, that bodes well.

Skill players on offense

Quarterback Aaron Murray has sent his name to the NFL’s draft advisory board, but the redshirt sophomore only did so out of curiosity, with no intention of leaving. So the Bulldogs figure to return one on the SEC’s top quarterbacks and pretty much all their receivers, including a trio of talented freshmen (Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley).

The tight end position will depend on whether junior Orson Charles jumps to the NFL. Charles said he will decide after the bowl.

But the tailback position is looking better than it had been. Keith Marshall, the nation’s top tailback recruit, is due to enroll at Georgia in January.

Isaiah Crowell, this year’s SEC freshman of the year, has had his share of injuries and off-field issues. But he said Saturday that he has no plans to transfer, welcomes the competition with Marshall and is ready to be more accountable.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Crowell said of his season. “I’m gonna remember the mistakes I made, the good things I did. How I’ve gotta stay in my mind, keep working hard, be the best teammate and person I can be.”

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