ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia regained its status as an SEC contender in 2011.
The Bulldogs, who won the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division title last season, are expecting to do more than just contend in 2012. The next step is winning the SEC championship.
A conference title could bring an even bigger prize – the SEC has won six consecutive national championships.
“The bottom line is the last six years, whoever won the league got to play for it,” coach Mark Richt said when asked about his team’s national championship hopes. “Our goal is to win the East, go to Atlanta and win the game.”
Richt has no shortage of big names to lead the pursuit of the program’s first SEC title since 2005.
Quarterback Aaron Murray set a school record with 35 touchdown passes last season. Malcolm Mitchell could be a breakout two-way star at cornerback and wide receiver.
Georgia returns nine starters from the nation’s fifth-ranked defense, including two 2011 first-team All-Americans – linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Bacarri Rambo.
After opening last season with losses to Boise State and South Carolina, Georgia won 10 games in a row. The Bulldogs beat Tennessee, Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech in the same year for the first time since Herschel Walker’s sophomore season in 1981.
The season ended with losses to LSU in the SEC championship game and to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. Despite those losses, the 10-4 record was a much-needed recovery from a 6-7 finish in 2010 that left questions about Richt’s status.
Now Georgia players want more.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Jones said. “We had a lot of hype last year, and we had a great run. This year, we know that people are expecting us to be way better. We’re just going to take it all in stride. We’re going to go out there every day and make it our best, practice at our best, and then try to take it from there.”
Richt must rebuild his offensive line and replace tailback Isaiah Crowell, the 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year who was dismissed after his arrest on a felony weapons charge. Crowell has transferred to Alabama State.
Georgia could use a committee approach to replacing Crowell. Freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley join sophomore Ken Malcome, senior Richard Samuel and junior Brandon Harton. Samuel also is working at fullback.
The defensive line is led by three seniors: nose tackle John Jenkins and ends Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington.
Led by Jones, Rambo and Jenkins, the defense returns nine starters.
Mitchell had 45 catches for 665 yards as a freshman last season, but he may spend most of his time on defense early in the season. Cornerback Sanders Commings is facing a two-game suspension for a domestic dispute.
Richt said this month that cornerback Branden Smith won’t be suspended after his March arrest on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession.
Murray said he doesn’t want to lean only on defense for wins.
“We want to score 40 or 50 points or more per game,” Murray said. “That’s our goal. We have the firepower at running back, at tight end, at receiver. We have a great offensive line. We’re capable of doing that. We’re not here just to roll over and say we can win with defense. We want to have our part and our share. We want to help them out.”
One year ago, Murray and the Bulldogs faced questions about Richt’s future as coach.
Suddenly, the outlook has changed. Georgia has been a popular top 10 pick in preseason polls, including a No. 6 spot in the USA Today coaches poll.
“We’re not worried about it,” Murray said. “Last year we ignored the negativity and all the bad talk about Georgia and this year we’re going to ignore all the positive stuff. We’re just going to focus on what we need to do, and that’s work hard, show up to practice every day with the right attitude, get in the film room, get in the weight room and do a lot of little things to make sure we have a successful season.”