AU FOOTBALL 2011 PREVIEWS: All eyes on Richt as Georgia opens season

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the weeks leading up to Auburn’s 2011 football season, Opelika-Auburn News Auburn University beat writer David Morrison will take a look at the Tigers’ upcoming opponents. This week: Georgia, which hosts Auburn on Nov. 12.

Georgia coach Mark Richt, according to CoachesHotSeat.com, has the fifth hottest seat in all of college football heading into 2011.

Meaning the Bulldogs head coach has, in a fairly fitting analogy, the fifth-shortest leash of any head man in the nation this year, the fifth-most likely coach to be in the doghouse (another one!) if things should go wrong for his team this year.

Kind of crazy to think about for a coach that’s 96-34 over a decade in charge in Athens.

But the fact is Richt’s teams are only 13-12 over the last two seasons — including a 6-7 campaign capped off by a 10-6 Liberty Bowl loss to UCF last year — and they haven’t been wanting for talent.

People have extremely short memories when it comes to winning in college football.

Only time will tell if Richt is on his way to redemption, on his way to resignation or already ousted by the time Georgia and Auburn meet between the hedges after the Tigers’ only in-season bye week.

Here are five more things you should know about the Bulldogs:

1) Aaron Murray is another year wiser: And he’s finally washed out the “90” imprint on his jersey that Nick Fairley left after the two met — repeatedly — last year.

The 6-foot-1, 211-pound sophomore quarterback from Tampa, Fla., had a stupendous year starting as a freshman in 2010.

Murray posted the second-most passing yards (3,049) for a freshman in SEC history, tied for first with D.J. Shockley in Georgia history with 28 touchdowns accounted for and came in fourth on the
Bulldogs’ all-time single-season list with 3,216 yards of total offense.

Of course, he did have supernatural wide receiver A.J. Green, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, to count on when he needed a lift last year.

Georgia’s receiving corps is devoid of A.J. Greens this year, but it does have Biletnikoff watch lister Tavarres King and Orson Charles, a big-bodied, sure-handed tight end who’s on the Mackey Award short list.

2) Isaiah Crowell better be ready to run: Any safety blanket the elite true freshman from Carver High in Columbus, Ga., had is now gone.

Washaun Ealey, the Bulldogs’ leading rusher last year, was granted an unconditional release from his scholarship in early May after he and Richt decided it’d be in Ealey’s “best interest” to move on.
He’s at Jacksonville State now.

Caleb King, the team’s second-leading rusher last year, was declared academically ineligible last week. He’s looking into the supplemental draft.

That leaves 5-7, 163-pound junior Carlton Thomas and a bunch of other lightly seasoned candidates to step in at running back.

And Crowell, the 5-11, 210-pound consensus five-star former high school teammate of incoming Auburn defensive lineman Gabe Wright.

Crowell’s certainly got a bright future. And that future, by the looks of things, has to be now.

3) They might have the best special teams in the nation: Georgia struck a blow for special teamers everywhere by bringing punter Drew Butler to SEC Media Days last year.

A proud day for punters, no doubt.

And Butler’s back on the front of the Bulldogs’ media guide for a second year, joining kicker Blair Walsh.

Why all this attention for the kickers? Because they’re really good.

Walsh was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist each of the past two seasons and nailed 20 field goals last year, while Butler was the Ray Guy Award winner in 2009, and a finalist last season when he averaged 44.5 yards a kick.

Plus, Georgia has Brandon Boykin, its all-time leader in kick return yardage, coming back.

4) Nearly their whole secondary is back: And by that, I mean three of four starters from the team that gave up 181.3 passing yards a game and picked off 16 passes last year.

There’s free safety Bacarri Rambo, who led Georgia with 82 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions last year, and corners Sanders Commings and Boykin, who each picked off three passes last year as well.

Long story short, they’re set at the back.

5) Their early season schedule is brutal: Georgia leads off with Boise State, who finished last year 12-1 and ranked No. 7 in the coaches’ poll, in the Georgia Dome on Sept. 3.

Then they host defending SEC East champion South Carolina the next week.

Then they take on the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, the co-champions in the FCS Big South Conference last year.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

ABOUT THE GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Coach: Mark Richt (Miami (Fla.), 1982); 11th year, 96-34
2010 Season: 6-7 (3-5 SEC, lost to UCF, 10-6, in the Liberty Bowl)
Returning Starters: 13 (4 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams)
Base Offense: Pro-Style
Base Defense: 3-4
Key Offensive Returner: QB Aaron Murray (So., 6-1, 211) — had a freshman year for the record books, but can he repeat with fewer weapons at receiver?
Key Defensive Returner: CB Brandon Boykin (Sr., 5-10, 183) — the team’s all-time leader in kick returns tied for the team lead with three picks last year.
Cream of the Recruiting Crop: RB Isaiah Crowell (Fr., 5-11, 210) — ran for 4,872 yards and 61 touchdowns at Carver High. Will be expected to step in early with the Bulldogs’ attrition at running back.
Fun Fact: Multiple members of the musical collective “Elephant 6,” which spawned such indie rock bands as “Neutral Milk Hotel,” “The Apples in Stereo” and “Olivia Tremor Control,” live in Athens. If you don’t understand any of those words, ask a hipster friend to explain them to you. He might roll his eyes behind his thick-rimmed glasses, but he’ll tell you all about them.

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