Premature Preview 2011: Georgia

Previously: Memphis, Auburn, LSU, Louisiana Tech

After an unexpected hiatus that we’ll blame on the baseball team, this weekly feature returns. To try and catch up a little bit, we’re going to go ahead and look at MSU’s Week 5 opponent, and on Friday we’ll profile the Week 6 foe. And now that my Phil Steele preview mag has come, my previews should have a little extra meat to them.

So let’s get to it. Today’s opponent finished last season on a low note, falling to UCF in the Liberty Bowl.

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Georgia Bulldogs (Oct. 1, in Athens)

Conference: SEC

2010 record: 6-7 (3-5, T-3rd in Eastern Division)

Final ranking: Not ranked

Coach: Mark Richt (96-34, 10 years)

Returning starters: 13 (4 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

Last meeting: MSU, 24-12 (Sept. 25, 2010, in Starkville)

On the Web: georgiadogs.com

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There are a lot of things to like about this Georgia team, but there are some very big concerns, too. Let’s start with the positives.

Quarterback Aaron Murray, a third-year sophomore, is back and could be the best signal-caller in the SEC. Last season he stepped right in and threw for 3,049 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions, becoming just the second SEC freshman to pass for 3,000 yards. He’s got good mobility and has that knack for playmaking.

Who will he be handing off to, though? Washaun Ealey, who led the Bulldogs with 811 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing last season, transferred out after spring practices. And there’s been a question as to whether Caleb King (430 yards, two TDs) will still be around come fall.

This could open the door to freshman Isaiah Crowell, a five-star in-state tailback who just might win the job regardless of who’s there. Steele thinks Crowell will start, and there’s a lot to like about the 5-foot-11, 210-pounder. He rushed for 1,721 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at Carver-Columbus, and he’s got a creative bone.

Defensively, seven starters return, and the Bulldogs should be more comfortable after being in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham‘s 3-4 scheme for a season. And it’s not like Georgia was terrible on defense last year, ranking fifth in scoring defense (22.1 ppg), fourth in total defense (328.5 ypg), seventh in rushing defense (147.2 ppg) and fifth in pass defense (181.3 ypg).

As for special teams, Steele ranks it the best unit in the country, and he’s probably right. UGA returns kicker Blair Walsh (first-team all-SEC, 2010 finalist for Lou Groza Award) and punter Drew Butler (2009 Ray Guy Award winner).

Now, the negatives. One place where it’s hard to hide issues is the offensive line, and Georgia has issues. Two starters return from 2010’s underperforming unit, and it would be three, but left tackle Trinton Sturdivant (6-5, 310) is out for the season after suffering a knee injury in the spring (he also missed the ’08 season with a knee injury).

While Murray is good, he won’t have A.J. Green or Kris Durham to throw to any more. Those two combined for 1,507 yards and 12 TDs last season.

And as for that defense, the Bulldogs do have to replace a pair of third-round NFL Draft picks at linebacker: Akeem Dent (team-high 126 tackles) and Justin Houston (team-highs 18.5 TFL and 10 sacks).

Some folks think Georgia can contend in the East with South Carolina. Maybe so. It would sure cool down Richt’s seat if that happens. Going between the hedges is never easy, but the good news for MSU is that when it shows up, the Athens Bulldogs will be coming off a pretty tough opening stretch: Boise State (in Atlanta), South Carolina, Coastal Carolina and at Ole Miss.

This is one of those games that could weigh heavily on which bowl MSU gets, assuming it qualifies.

Up next: UAB