Chris Low put out his conference power rankings yesterday, and he's got Georgia in the seven spot. That seems awfully low to me, and it's just the latest in a series of people predicting another mediocre year for the Bulldogs in 2010. Just how founded is that pessimism though?
I decided to take a quick look at Georgia's situation to get a general, way-too-early, month-before-spring-practice look at where UGA sits for 2010. In addition to looking back at 2009. I'm also going to be comparing 2010's state to where the Bulldogs were in 2006 since that's the last time they faced the same level of inexperience at quarterback that they will this fall. They also went 9-4 that season, which would be an improvement over 2009's 8-5 record.
How far Georgia can go in 2010 will rest on who ends up winning the quarterback derby and how well he plays. In 2006, Georgia largely relied on the freshman Matthew Stafford behind center. While Stafford probably had more raw talent than any of the guys fighting for the job this year, he didn't exactly enjoy a stellar season. Few freshmen ever do.
The rating of 109.0 put Stafford in 86th place in the country, sandwiched between the immortal Anthony Morelli of Penn State and Georgia Tech's Reggie Ball (yes, that Reggie Ball). No matter whether its Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, or Logan Gray taking the snaps in 2009, this level of performance is more than attainable. In fact, since all three have been in the program for a year or more, I'd expect any of them to surpass Stafford's freshman stat line.
What helps out the eventual quarterback is the wealth of guys Georgia has at the skill positions. Stafford's top two running backs in '06 were Kregg Lumpkin (798 yards, 4.9 YPC) and Danny Ware (326 yards, 4.0 YPC). Last season, Georgia's top two running backs were Washaun Ealey (717 yards, 5.7 YPC) and Caleb King (594 yards, 5.2 YPC), and both are back this year. Provided that neither of them unexpectedly fall off, the running back situation looks better than 2006's was.
At receiver in 2006, Stafford's primary targets were TE Martrez Milner (425 rec. yards) and WR Mohammed Massaquoi (366 rec. yards) with 30 catches apiece. A.J. Green is better than either of those guys, which certainly helps. A season ago, redshirt freshman WR Tavarres King (377 rec. yards) and TE Orson Charles (374 rec. yards) surpassed Massaquoi's '06 totals.
Part of that has to do with Joe Cox throwing for about 40% more yards in '09 than Stafford did in '06, of course. Even so, there's definitely talented targets for the new quarterback to throw to. Going down the list of Stafford's 2006 targets, it's easy to say that UGA is better off at receiver/tight end in 2010 than it was in 2006.
With upgrades at all the skill positions and a relatively low bar to meet at quarterback, I'm fairly comfortable in saying that Georgia's offense will be better in 2010 than it was in 2006.
Mark Richt completely overhauled his defensive staff this off season by hiring Scott Lakatos as secondary coach, Warren Belin as linebackers coach, and Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator. Lakatos and Belin had great track records at UConn and Vanderbilt, their respective schools prior to joining Georgia. The only potential red flag in Grantham's career was his so-so stint as Cleveland Browns DC from 2005-07, but it's hard to hold a lack of success with the Browns against a guy. Even Bill "Four Super Bowls with Three Rings" Belichick failed in Cleveland.
Georgia's defensive struggles have been building over the last few years:
|Season||Total Defense||Scoring Defense|
That's something that will need to be fixed for Georgia to get things turned around. There might be some struggles with Grantham moving to the Bulldogs to a 3-4 from the 4-3 that everyone is used to playing. Even given that though, things should get better since the new defensive staff is an upgrade.
Just how much better could the defense get in a year? To answer that, I'm going to take a look at another SEC program that went through a similar regression from 2006-08 but who made a change for 2009: LSU.
|Season||Total Defense||Scoring Defense|
*2008 number excludes points from Jarrett Lee's pick-sixes.
LSU's defense was all kinds of nasty in 2006, but it took a step backwards in 2007 despite the national championship. Even if you take out the overtime points that the "undefeated in regulation" Tigers allowed that year, the average still comes out at 17.2. Then after Bo Pelini left, things got worse in 2008 with the disastrous co-coordinator experiment in 2008. Those guys were then replaced by John Chavis in 2009, and while total offense didn't budge much, the points allowed dropped by more than a field goal. That 16.23 points a game was good enough for 11th in the country.
Now, Georgia did lose some talented guys like Rennie Curran and Jeff Owens from last year's D. Still, it's not like the team is devoid of talent or anything, just like LSU wasn't in 2008. Now, we don't know if Grantham will be as effective a defensive coordinator as the long proven Chavis is, but things got worse at Georgia than they ever did at LSU. You don't have to be a defensive genius to figure out how not to give up 34 points to Kentucky or hold South Carolina to less than 37. There's some low hanging fruit here in Athens.
So let's imagine that the complete defensive upgrade amounts ends up with a larger improvement than the four point improvement that LSU had from '08 to '09 (since the starting point was lower, it's harder to make headway). Let's also assume that it's less than the largest single-season improvement in the SEC in recent memory, Florida going from 25.5 points allowed per game in '07 to 12.93 points allowed per game in '08 since Grantham doesn't have the same kind of track record Charlie Strong had.
It might be a bit much to ask to get all the way back down to 2006's 17.6 points allowed per game, but I think it's reasonable to think UGA will end up somewhere in the neighborhood of 2007's 20.2. Based on recent history, that would give the Bulldogs about a top 30 defense nationally, which is reasonable given Richt's highly rated recruiting classes and a fully competent defensive staff.
Georgia was one of the most aggressive schedulers in 2009, and while the Bulldogs did beat two of their three non conference BCS foes, it still wears more on a team than an easier schedule would. UGA also drew the second best team in the SEC West in LSU.
The 2010 schedule is much closer to 2006's schedule than 2009's though. Here's a look at Georgia's non-conference and rotating West opponents in those two seasons:
|2006 Schedule||2010 Schedule|
|Western Kentucky (I-AA)||Idaho State (I-AA)|
|UAB (bad CUSA team)||UL-Lafayette (mid-range Sun Belt team)|
|Colorado (bad)||@Colorado (bad)|
|Georgia Tech (won 9 games)||Georgia Tech (probably 9/10 game winner)|
|@Ole Miss (Orgeron era)||@Miss St. (likely marginal bowl team)|
|Miss St. (Croom era)||Arkansas (solid bowl team or better)|
The rotating SEC schedule hits a little harder, but the non-conference slate is about as winnable. It also helps that 2010 Auburn won't be an 11-game winner like its 2006 incarnation was, and I'll eat my hat if 2010 Tennessee matches 2006 Tennessee's nine game win total. Kentucky 2010 also won't be up to its 2006 self since Andre' Woodson is gone, and Vandy won't be as tough with Jay Cutler gone. After a couple of years of admirable yet tough schedules, the degree of difficulty ratchets down a bit in 2010.
The 2010 Georgia offense will be better than the 2006 offense was. The defense probably won't be quite as good as it was in 2006, but it doesn't have to be with the offense improving. The schedule is just as manageable.
From where I sit today, I have no trouble seeing Georgia match its 2006 win total of nine. That '06 team even dropped a couple of winnable games by losing to Kentucky 24-20 and Vanderbilt 24-22, so its record could have been better at essentially the same production level.
In 2010, Georgia has six games that would appear to be in doubt to some degree at all: @South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida (N), @Auburn, and Georgia Tech. Even if Georgia drops all three games away from Athens, that's still a 9-3 regular season. Even if Georgia somehow goes just 2-4 in these games, there's still a chance at nine wins with a bowl victory.
After all of the turmoil of the last six months, I can understand why some people might be apprehensive about Georgia in 2009. If you look closer though, I can't see a reason to rank the Bulldogs as low as seventh in the league. It has the look of at least a nine game winner, and even at the SEC's height of quality from 2005-07, nine wins puts you solidly in the top half of the conference.