After a turnaround season, Georgia was picked to repeat as SEC East champs during the conference's annual football media days.
"I hope the media is right," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I was looking at the record of picking the eventual champion. It wasn't real good. But maybe you guys are better at picking the divisional champ anyway. But it would be nice to get back to Atlanta."
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Georgia's 10-4 season in 2011 resulted in its first SEC East title since 2005. It also saved Richt's job. That the Bulldogs will enter 2012 as a marked team likely ranked in the preseason top 10 doesn't bother players on the team.
"It doesn't hurt anything," senior receiver Tavarres King said. "Really all that matters is if you're there at the end. It doesn't hurt at all if people picked us to be there."
Georgia has the talent in place to live up to its lofty billing. Junior quarterback Aaron Murray enters his third year as a starter and is coming off a season in which he set a school record for TD passes with 35. On the other side of the ball, preseason All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones leads a defense that's getting more and more comfortable under third-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme.
Still, it was a tumultuous offseason for the Bulldogs. Richt dismissed leading rusher Isaiah Crowell from the team after he was arrested on a felony weapons charge in late June. A number of defensive players, including projected starters Bacarri Rambo (S), Alec Ogeltree (LB) and Sanders Commings (CB) are facing early-season suspensions.
"There's more attrition in the last couple years than there's been since I've been at Georgia," Richt said. "But you know, sometimes that happens. We'll still have plenty of guys to field a team."
HEAD COACH: Mark Richt, 12th year at Georgia, 106-38 at Georgia and as a head coach.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Jarvis Jones -- Really, this is a toss-up between Jones and redshirt junior QB Aaron Murray. But Jones proved he was an impact defensive player last year, leading the SEC in sacks (13.5) while forcing two fumbles and recording 19.5 tackles for loss. Jones will likely get more attention from offensive gameplans this season, but it should free up his teammates to make big plays as well.
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BREAKOUT STAR: WR Tavarres King -- With Malcolm Mitchell switched to CB and TE Orson Charles gone to the NFL, King will have a chance to emerge as the top receiver in the passing game. King showed flashes of his big play ability by finishing with 205 yards receiving (including an 80-yard TD catch) against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OL John Theus -- Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said Theus, a five-star recruit from Jacksonville, Fla., has a chance to win a starting job this spring. But Bobo does not know if Theus will begin fall drills at tackle or guard. "We're playing around with it a lot right now," Bobo said. "It's not going to be set in stone until we get out there and practice. I can't really answer that right now where he's going to start the first day of practice."
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Georgia needs to continue to get big plays from its defense while quarterback Aaron Murray adapts to some new skill position players on offense. The Bulldogs were plus-seven in turnover margin last season (32 forced, 25 given up), a marked improvement compared to previous seasons. With Malcolm Mitchell likely starting the season strictly on defense, receivers Marlon Brown, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett will have to step up to provide support in the passing game for senior WR Tavarres King.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Georgia lost three starters from its offensive line last season -- tackle Cordy Glenn, center Ben Jones and guard Justin Anderson. Kenarious Gates is presumed to replace Glenn at left tackle, but 280-pound sophomore David Andrews has big shoes to fill to replace Jones. The running game took a blow with the dismissal of Isaiah Crowell, who was Georgia's leading rusher last season with 850 yards and five TDs. Ken Malcome and Richard Samuel will need to pick up the slack. Georgia's defensive depth also will be shaky in the beginning of the season with the losses of CB Sanders Commings, S Bacarri Rambo and LB Alec Ogeltree to early-season suspensions. On special teams, Georgia will be replacing the talented duo of P Drew Butler and K Blair Walsh with a pair of freshmen, K Marshall Morgan and P Collin Barber. Georgia also will need a pass-catching TE to emerge to replace Orson Charles. Jay Rome and Arthur Lynch will be batting for the starting job at TE this fall.
-- Georgia coach Mark Richt said he expects sophomore Malcolm Mitchell to focus on playing exclusively CB early in the 2012 season. Mitchell switched from WR to CB during the offseason. Richt didn't rule out the possibility of Mitchell playing both ways later in the season. "I think the one thing you have to look at is the need, with Sanders [Commings] being suspended," Richt said. "Also early in the season, it's hot and you don't want Malcolm to be in a situation where he's cramping up if he plays both ways." Georgia secondary coach Scott Lakatos said Mitchell is "already our best corner."
-- With the dismissal of TB Isaiah Crowell, senior RB Richard Samuel will now most likely be seeing time at both TB and FB this fall. The 245-pound Samuel was planning to become strictly a fullback before Crowell's dismissal. "I understand the need," Samuel said. "There are certain areas where we have needs and right now those are tailback and fullback. If it were a completely different position, that might be overkill. But I enjoy both positions I'll be playing."
-- CB Branden Smith is expected to miss at least the season opener against Buffalo on Sept. 1 after being charged with possession of marijuana.
-- CB Sanders Commings has been suspended for the first two games of the season after he was arrested last winter on a domestic violence charge.
-- Walk-on redshirt freshman Merritt Hall has shot up to first on depth chart at FB past Richard Samuel and Alexander Ogeltree. "Merritt had a great spring," coach Mark Richt said. "He learned what to do and he was striking people with a lot of enthusiasm. He would have earned the right to be the starter at the end of spring so we put it on the board that way."