story by Chris Rushing, College Sports Matchups (CSM is a content partner with The City Wire)
For all intents and purposes, no one can look at the 10 years Mark Richt has spent at the helm of the University of Georgia program and not think that it’s a successful run. Two Southeastern Conference titles highlight the past decade after it had been 25 years between SEC crowns for the Bulldogs.
However, last year’s 8-5 finish, has several outsiders stating that Richt’s job may be in jeopardy with another subpar record in 2010. The question is: how much fire is behind that smoke?
There will not be a lack of returning starters for UGA this fall, with 10 of 11 coming back on offense alone. Caleb King and Wayshon Ealey are two of the league’s top running backs, and all five starters return along the offensive line. Don’t forget that Georgia has perhaps the SEC’s top receiver in AJ Greene, who now has two years of big-time plays and experience to help the new signal caller behind the line of scrimmage.
Aaron Murray is set to be the next great Bulldog quarterback as the redshirt freshman takes the reins of Mike Bobo and Richt’s offensive schemes. Murray is short on experience, but he is talented and will solidify his foothold atop the depth chart with a solid start through the first few games.
However, the 2009 season wasn’t viewed as unsuccessful because of the offense. Willie Martinez lost his job as the UGA defensive coordinator after the Bulldogs surrendered 25.9 points per outing, including more than 40 in three games. When you have a first-year starting quarterback, those types of numbers just aren’t acceptable.
Todd Grantham has replaced Martinez and has brought a 3-4 defensive scheme with him from the Dallas Cowboys to help solve the Bulldogs’ woes on that side of the ball. Graham does not have as much returning experience as Bobo and the offense, but that may not hurt considering a complete change in philosophy, terminology and the results from last year.
Bacarri Rambo will be the key to the secondary as the sophomore returns from a highly successful freshman season with 18 tackles and a pair of interceptions – including one for a touchdown.
Kicker Blair Walsh is the SEC’s most decorated returner at the position and with good reason. He was 20-of-22 last year on field goal attempts. Walsh has remained Mr. Consistent for Richt and Co. After polling all 12 league Sports Information Directors earlier this spring, Walsh was the choice for the Birmingham News’ first-team All-SEC placekicker. The former No. 1-ranked prep kicker has not failed to live up to his billing during his first two seasons at UGA.
The Boca Raton, Fla., native was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award in 2009. He scored a career-best 14 points against Arkansas in a wild 52-41 UGA win early in the 2009 schedule.
The schedule is better than last season for the Bulldogs, but it still cannot be considered favorable with just six games at Sanford Stadium. Three road contests in the first five games (at South Carolina, at Mississippi State and at Colorado) could prove dangerous with a new starter at quarterback The back end of the schedule features three road trips in four weeks also (at Kentucky, vs. Florida, at Auburn).
Richt is a road warrior, however, losing just five times on opposing campuses since he arrived in Athens in 2000. Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Tennessee all must play Between the Hedges, and the Bulldogs must sweep those three in order to have what most would consider a successful season.
So what will it take to keep Richt on solid footing with the Bulldogs’ supporters? If there was ever a season where the SEC East was up for grabs, it is this one, which will keep UGA in the hunt for Atlanta throughout. Nine or 10 wins isn’t out of the question, but that will take some major work on the road with inexperience at the most important position on offense. A new scheme on defense will also take some adjustment time, making road trips just as difficult for the defense.
Damon Evans, UGA’s athletic director, stands behind his man right now. Will he still feel that way if 7-5 is the final mark after the Georgia Tech game again? You can be sure the smoke will be there.
Quick Look: University of Georgia 2010
• Starters Returning: Offense — 10 , Defense — 6
• Key to the Team: Aaron Murray, QB
• Most likely to breakout: Bacarri Rambo, S
• Most important game: vs. Florida, Oct. 30