You might say that it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride around Athens, Ga., of late.
One year ago, Georgia head coach Mark Richt was positioned squarely upon the proverbial hot seat.
Eleven months, 10 days, and a few hours ago, the Bulldogs emerged from the Georgia Dome tunnel dressed in an elaborate Nike creation that included a six-inch red stripe down the center of a chrome helmet. Eleven months, 10 days, and a few fewer hours ago, Boise State beat the Dawgs soundly, 35-21 — in spite of the shiny hats.
Eleven months and three day ago, South Carolina dropped Georgia to 0-2.
Eight months and 17 days ago, the Bulldogs defeated rival Georgia Tech in Atlanta; the 10th straight victory for Richt & Co., en route to a division championship and a berth in the SEC Championship game.
Eight months and 10 days ago, top-ranked LSU dominated Georgia, 42-10. One month after flopping versus the Bayou Bengals, the Bulldogs lost a triple-overtime Capital One Bowl marathon to Michigan State — thus, opening and closing the season with two consecutive defeats.
Seven months and 30 days ago, junior safety Bacarri Rambo was named to the AP All-American team. Four months and 16 days later, Rambo was suspended for four games after failing a drug test.
One week before Rambo was designated as an All-American, running back Isaiah Crowell was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman Player of the Year. One month and 13 days ago, Crowell was kicked off of the team following a weapons charge.
The good news for Georgia — for now, anyway — is that, even without Crowell, the Bulldogs are as talented as they’ve been since 2007.
Quarterback Aaron Murray is good, and could be great. A season ago, Murray posted his second-straight 3,000-yard passing season, while setting the Georgia single-season record for touchdown passes (35) and touchdown responsibility (37). Murray — not Matt Stafford, Fran Tarkenton, Eric Zeier or David Greene — will, barring injury, own the bulk of the UGA passing record book by season’s end. He was second-team All-SEC in 2011, after leading the conference in touchdown tosses — by 11.
Crowell is gone, along with 850 rushing yards and five touchdowns from a season ago. The defection could cripple the Dawgs running game — or it could have little to no effect. That’s because the majority of the abandoned weight falls on unproven true freshman Keith Marshall. Marshall, like Crowell, was the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit, after racking up 4,452 yards at Millbrook High School (N.C.). In January, Marshall challenged star tw0-way player Malcolm Mitchell to a foot race — filmed by Murray — and won.
Speaking of Mitchell, the sophomore will start at cornerback for the Bulldogs, increasing the likelihood that he will only play part-time at wide receiver. Mitchell was second on the team in receptions (45) and receiving yards (665) as a freshman, and the more he plays on defense, the more Georgia will need help replacing his production. Senior Tavarres King will bear the brunt of the responsibility as the team’s leading receiver a season ago.
Defensively, Georgia will be stellar. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is a rock star in Athens, and he has plenty of tools in the shed — most notably, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. The former USC transfer was a Butkus Award finalist in 2011, after leading the conference in sacks (13.5).
The linebacking core is led by Jones and junior Alec Ogletree. Ogletree racked up 52 tackles despite playing in just eight games a season ago. He led the Bulldogs in tackles in each of their final five contests, including a 13-tackle effort in the Outback Bowl. Unfortunately, he is also an extension of the theme that currently plagues UGA. Ogletree will miss the first 2-4 games of 2012 for a violation of team rules.
Joining Ogletree, eventually, is fellow rule violator Bacarri Rambo. Rambo is an elite safety who picked off eight passes in 2011 — tops in the SEC, second-best in college football. He did that in 13 games after being suspended for the season-opener versus Boise State. Rambo headlines a loaded secondary that features Mitchell and safety Shawn Williams.
Prediction: 10-2 (6-2)
The schedule is a relative cakewalk by SEC standards, void of the western division three-headed monster. The Bulldogs must travel to both Columbias, to visit Missouri and South Carolina. The World’s Largest Cocktail Party looms in late October. But, if the offense can keep up with the defense, Georgia is a very real contender in not only the SEC, but on the national stage, as well.