Nick Saban reminded a national audience that Georgia was five yards from a national title. Just 16 months earlier Paul Finebaum wrote in Sports Illustrated that the prospects for Mark Richt keeping his job were poor. Of course, Finebaum is the guy who left RG3 completely off his Heisman ballot in claiming he would have only gone 6-6 in the SEC (guess the SEC is tougher than the NFL). Cole Muzio looks at the turnaround in Athens, Georgia:
They were the team that nearly beat Alabama. They were yards shy of facing a weak Notre Dame team for the national championship Game. However, just a few short years ago, Mark Richt was on the hot-seat and his Georgia Bulldogs were a team that was underperforming. The decision to keep him following a 6-7 season was met with significant resistance among Bulldogs fans. Now, following two consecutive trips to the SEC Championship Game, things are once again clearly looking good in Athens.
The turnaround began with recruiting.
Richt followed the rough season with a 2011 recruiting class ranked #5 in the country according to Rivals.com, a class that earned the moniker of “Dream Team” due to the number of in-state prospects who chose to stay home to form something special with the Bulldogs.
According to Jake Rowe, the Recruiting and Football Analyst with UGASports.com, the 6-7 season was “an eye-opener for a lot of folks in the program.” While he told me that there is still concern over inconsistent play and poor coaching decisions such as spiking the ball against Alabama, recruiting success with “The Dream Team” and subsequent on the field success has most most fans optimistic.
Following the poor 2010 performance, Rowe said Richt made some changes. “I think after the 6-7 season what you saw Georgia do is they started to commit to bringing in more high character guys,” said Rowe who also said Richt had many players who “weren’t salt of the earth kind of guys” leave the program. “Then,” Rowe continued, “you saw them upgrade their talent level and begin to build a team along the line of scrimmage.”
Last year, the Bulldogs signed a number of immediate impact players including linebacker Jordan Jenkins, offensive tackle John Theus, and running backs Keith Marshall, and Todd Gurley.
The greatest challenge for Richt and co. will be building upon the recruiting and on-field success success despite the loss of eight starters across the Bulldogs defense including the departures of likely first rounders Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree.
To bolster that defense, Richt has signed thirteen players to enroll early and go through spring practice with seven of those players projecting on the defensive side of the ball. Safety Tray Matthews, who Rowe describes as a “legit elite safety” is the headliner. Rowe and others also expect big things from cornerback Reggie Wilkerson, linebacker Reginald Carter, and defensive tackles Chris Mayes and John Atkins.
Prospects like quarterback Brice Ramsey (an early enrollee), center Brian Kublanow, linebackers Johnny O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough, as well as diamond in the rough receiver Rico Johnson who Rowe believes “has the kind of skill set to make big eye opening plays next year” are also big reasons why the Bulldogs Class of 2013 is highly regarded and currently sitting at #10 in the Rivals.com Team Rankings.
Despite this strong recruiting haul, the Bulldogs may not be judged by who they got, but who they didn’t get. The Bulldogs need a strong close.
The state of Georgia has perhaps the strongest collection of talent in recent memory. It is the home of Breitbart Sports’ #1 (Carl Lawson), #2 (Robert Nkemdiche), and #3 (Montravious Adams) players. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they have long been out of contention for Lawson and Nkemdiche and Clemson is competing hard with Georgia for Adams’ signature (Alabama, Auburn, and Florida are also in contention, but, at this time, it appears that Georgia and Clemson are in the lead).
Reuben Foster, Breitbart Sports’ #4 player also grew up in Georgia before moving to Auburn, AL prior to his senior season.
In addition to those top players, there have been a number of in-state misses for the Bulldogs. Wide receiver DeMarcus Robinson (Florida), running back Tyren Jones (Alabama), linebacker Trey Johnson (Ohio State), safety Vonn Bell (likely deciding between Alabama and Ohio State), defensive linemen Kelsey Griffin (South Carolina) and Isaac Rochell (Notre Dame), and quarterback Johnathon McCrary (Vanderbilt) will all be signing with out of state programs.
To be fair, Georgia will bring in a number of elite in-state prospects including Trey Matthews, and didn’t pursue many on that list, including Lawson, due to lack of fit schematically. Also, Rowe was quick to point out that UGA is not your typical in-state powerhouse as, due to location, a number of schools like Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Clemson, Florida State, and Florida may actually be closer to Georgia prospects than the Bulldogs.
However, if Richt is going to make sure this class is remembered as yet another elite class, not a class of missed opportunities, Georgia will need to do well with the remaining targets. The top prospects left on the board are Adams, Foster, Breitbart Sports’ #14 player offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, five-star linebacker Matthew Thomas, elite in-state running back Alvin Kamara, JUCO defensive tackle Toby Johnson, and defensive end/linebacker Davin Bellamy.
At this point, Rowe feels confident in Georgia’s ability to sign Johnson and Tunsil. Kamara is also a strong possibility to sign with the “Dawgs” as Alabama, his other top choice, has a number of other elite backs already committed. Adams may be a lean as well, and Georgia is coming on strong for Bellamy who cites Georgia and Tennessee as his top two despite his commitment to Florida State.
If Georgia can close with that group of top prospects, this will be another elite class for Richt although Rowe feels Foster and Thomas will go elsewhere. Two strong seasons have the Georgia Bulldogs back in contention, but he will need to bring in another strong haul on February 6th to keep the momentum going and stay towards the top in the SEC.