It's still slightly incredible to think back on how many Georgia fans were ready to pitch Mark Richt overboard after the 0-2 start to the 2011 season. (I know, Georgia fans -- not all of you were.) Sure, it had been a rough couple of years for the Bulldogs -- but we were still talking about a coach that had brought more success to Athens than they had known under the previous two head coaches combined. There's not really much danger of Richt being run out of Athens any time soon.
Instead, Georgia is looking at the possibility of setting up a kind of mini-dynasty in the SEC East. However they got there -- South Carolina fans have their own theories about this -- Georgia has won the last two division titles and has to be given pretty good odds of making it three in a row. That is, depending on what happens with the defense.
This year, by the way, there isn't (or at least shouldn't be) as much to say about the Bulldogs having a weaker schedule than their division counterparts. Yes, they probably did, but the Dawgs also knocked off Florida when the Gators seemed to be headed for a national title and came up five yards short of beating Alabama for the SEC Championship. Ole Miss was starting to put things together when Georgia shut down the Rebels and dropped 37 points on them for good measure. Florida and South Carolina can complain if they want to, but Florida could have beaten Georgia in the head-to-head showdown and South Carolina could have defeated Florida if they wanted a chance for the title.
But making it three SEC East wins in a row might prove to be a bit difficult for Georgia. And not just because Florida and South Carolina look to be strong again next year while Vanderbilt continues to pick up momentum, or because LSU joins the conference schedule.
Instead, the more challenging aspect of getting back to Atlanta might be on the defensive side of the ball. With Kwame Geathers, Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree declaring for the NFL Draft, there are 12 defensive players leaving early or graduating who had multiple starts for Georgia this season. The defense was not necessarily the key to Georgia's success this year -- all in all, they were a bit above average for an SEC team -- but losing that much talent in one season is always going to be cause for concern.
The bright spot is that almost all of the offense comes back. Tavarres King is the only notable exception (and, when we're talking about starters, the only exception at all). That would be the top offense in the division in terms of yards per play -- 7.1, with Tennessee second at 6.4 and everyone else in the SEC East at least a yard behind. Aaron Murray deciding to return to Georgia for his senior season was one of the more significant developments of the offseason in the division. There is no real reason not to expect Georgia to be just as explosive offensively as it was this year, if not more so.
The only question is whether that's enough to offset the defensive losses. If it is, then go ahead and put down Mark Richt's team for another trip to the Georgia Dome. And if it's not, the odds are still pretty good that we won't see quite as many calls for shaking up the coaching staff that brought Georgia to the point that it can think about three in a row.