Minus a few starters, UGA gets started

semerson@macon.comAugust 31, 2012 

ATHENS -- Georgia’s season-opening football game is not on national television. As of Friday afternoon, there were still about 300 tickets left. Players have not been talking about Buffalo for nine months, the way they were last year with Boise State.

That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are in bad shape. It’s just a different spot. Georgia is the nation’s sixth-ranked team, the third highest preseason rank in the Mark Richt era, and a 38-point favorite in its season opener.

The mantra is simple -- survive and advance and then get ready for Missouri and whatever else awaits in a season in which hopes are high.

“The expectations and what rides on this game are still the same. But I think the opponent is definitely different -- a different style,” Georgia senior linebacker Christian Robinson said, perhaps a bit generously.

Buffalo is coming off a 3-9 season and was 2-10 the prior year.

Georgia is also widely expected to romp in this game despite numerous players missing it -- the latest news on that front coming Friday.

Malcolm Mitchell’s highly anticipated debut at cornerback will wait until at least next week. The sophomore sprained his left ankle in Thursday’s practice and will miss the Buffalo game. Georgia spokesman Claude Felton said there were “no projections” for Mitchell’s availability for the Missouri game.

Georgia already was without starting cornerback Sanders Commings, a senior whose January arrest led to a two-game suspension. That, along with the dismissal or transfer of three backup cornerbacks, led to Mitchell’s move from receiver, where he was perhaps the team’s most dynamic player on offense in 2011.

The Bulldogs also know they are without junior Chase Vasser, out two games following an arrest this spring.

And the status of two other starters remains shrouded in mystery and might not be revealed Saturday. Safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree were facing drug suspensions, but Richt has declined to specify their status, trying to keep the competition in the dark.

If part of that strategy was aimed at Missouri, Rambo and Ogletree’s status probably won’t be specified after Saturday’s game either, unless either of them play against Buffalo, which would be a surprise at this point.

But despite all the missing players, the Bulldogs think they have enough to field a dominant defense.

“We’re still gonna be playing at that high level that everyone expects,” Robinson said. “Like last year, we had 11 different lineups, and it really doesn’t matter. Yeah we have some really good players that may not be there, but we’re gonna put guys in a spot to make plays, and we can still be as dominant as we want to be.”

Indeed, the curiosity for Georgia fans still figures to be on offense and special teams, where freshmen will see plenty of action.

Freshmen Marshall Morgan (place-kicker) and Collin Barber (punter) will make their debut for Georgia. They are replacing Blair Walsh, who opens the NFL season as the place-kicker for the Minnesota Vikings, and punter Drew Butler, who made it through the Pittsburgh Steelers’ final cut Friday.

Three freshmen also make highly anticipated debuts on offense.

Tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall aren’t starting but will get carries.

On the line, John Theus starts at right tackle, hoping to solidify a group that enters the season as perhaps Georgia’s top concern. Theus was one of the nation’s top recruits this year, and word of mouth at Georgia preseason camp has been positive.

“I’m really good friends with the offensive linemen, a bunch of them,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “We were just hanging out, and they were like, ‘Man, Theus is the real deal.’ ”

There is also a new and unexpected starter at fullback. Redshirt freshman Merritt Hall walked on last year and has managed to vault a players who arrived on campus on scholarship.

In fact, two players from Wesleyan are first-teamers. Center David “Boss” Andrews, a sophomore, is set to make his first college start.

“It just shows that hard work pays off and that if you want to do something, you’ve gotta work at it,” Hall said. “I know for a fact Boss is one of the hardest workers out there I’ve seen. He never takes a day off. It’s really exciting that me and him are gonna be in there at the same time, coming from the same high school and knowing each other since middle school.”

Georgia is banking on that being the only underdog story Saturday. Buffalo hasn’t beaten a team from a BCS conference since 2002. Georgia has not lost to an unranked, non-BCS conference team in the regular season during the Richt era.

“Mainly we just have to go out there and do what we know we can do,” Robinson said. “Last opener, we didn’t do that.”

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