|Quarterback Aaron Murray :: Getty Images|
The gathering took place in mid-September in Georgia's main meeting room. The day before, the Bulldogs had lost at home to South Carolina 45-42, dropping their record to 0-2. Now with their season slipping away, several upperclassmen at this players-only meeting stood up and put forth an ambitious goal: Let's win 10 games in a row.
That's precisely what happened. Though the Bulldogs lost their final two games of the 2011 season, including a 33-30 defeat to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, that winning streak reinvigorated the program and hushed talk that coach Mark Richt's job could be in jeopardy. "One key for us this year is going to be to start fast," said junior quarterback Aaron Murray. "This team is loaded with talent at every position. We need to play every game this season like we did during the winning streak."
Particularly given the early-season suspensions to safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree, Murray holds the key to beginning quickly. One of 15 returning starters, the 6-foot-1, 211-pounder threw for a school-record 35 touchdowns in 2011. He has started 27 games at Georgia, and when he's on, he can pick apart a defense with ruthless efficiency. Last season Georgia finished second in the SEC in passing (244.5 yards per game) and third in total offense (408.5). And he likes the taste of victory. "Since peewee football I've been on teams that basically won every game," he said. Richt loves his quarterback's progress since he arrived in Athens. "Aaron has grown up," the coach said. "He has outstanding fundamentals, he's very prepared and he has great knowledge of our system."
The Georgia defense is anchored by nosetackles John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers -- mountains of humanity (Jenkins is 6-foot-3 and 351 pounds; Geathers 6-foot-6 and 350 pounds) whom Richt calls "the best one-two punch in the country at that position." Jenkins and Geathers excel at tying up blockers and opening space for Jarvis Jones, a 6-foot-3, 241-pound linebacker who led the SEC in sacks last season with 13.5 while making 19.5 tackles for loss. The Bulldogs finished sixth in the conference in 2011 in scoring defense (20.6 points per game), but that number should shrink this year.
Said Murray, "Last year, when we started so poorly, we needed to figure out what we needed to change and we did that. We learned a lot. I know that this team now has the right attitude to go very, very far."
Has the defense, anchored by its massive interior, matured enough to play at a championship level.
2 -- Consecutive seasons quarterback Aaron Murray has passed for more than 3,000 yards, the first Bulldog to do so since 1994.
David Andrews, C, So. -- Coach Mark Richt's biggest concern heading into the season is his offensive line, which has been infused with new blood. Though Andrews -- who replaces four-year starter Ben Jones -- is undersized for an SEC center (6-foot-2, 280 pounds), he impressed coaches in the spring with his ability to control bigger defensive linemen and make heady line calls.
Chris Burnette, G, Jr. -- The leader of the offensive line, he functions as a coach on the field. At 6-foot-2, 313 pounds, Burnette started 12 games last year and was a stout run blocker.
Malcolm Mitchell, CB-WR, So. -- As a wide receiver last season the 6-foot-1, 184-pound Mitchell caught 45 passes for 665 yards and four touchdowns. This spring he moved to cornerback, where he has a chance to start. Look for him to be a two-way player by the middle of the season.
Jarvis Jones, LB, Jr. -- One of the nation's most talented pass rushers, he led the SEC and was fifth in the country with .96 sacks per game. Jones is a contender for SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Arby Jones, DE, Sr. -- Jones has started 20 games in his Georgia career but, according to coaches, it wasn't until this spring that he turned into a dominating force. "Abry has kept getting bigger and stronger," said Richt, "and now he's a guy who will be a high NFL draft pick." Last season the 6-foot-3, 309-pounder had 48 tackles and four sacks. Richt expects those numbers to balloon this fall.
John Theus, OT, Fr. -- As a senior at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Theus was a USA Today first-team All-America and earned scholarship offers from eight SEC schools. At 6-foot-6 and 292 pounds, Theus has the strength, quickness and size to start immediately.
On many afternoons this spring, Tavarres King would be student-teaching his 10th grade American Government class at Clarke Central High in Athens when he'd receive a text from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. "Let's go throw," Murray would write. "Meet me later." After the day's final bell at Clarke the senior wideout would head to the Bulldogs' practice field, where he'd find Murray with two footballs in his hands. Murray and King would then imagine that 100,000 screaming fans surrounded them and that an SEC game was on the line. King would run every kind of pattern -- short, intermediate, long, over the middle, sideline fades -- and Murray would attempt to hit King in stride. On some evenings they could be seen on the practice field playing their games of catch after sunset, two figures dashing through the darkness.
"I caught so many balls from Aaron this spring that it's just crazy," King said. "I want to have a drop-free season, and it all starts with those throwing-and-catching sessions with Aaron. Building that relationship with your quarterback is key to having success on game days. We'll work on routes, and if we're not on the same page and he's not hitting me in stride, we'll stay out there until we get it done right."
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound King again will be Murray's favorite target in 2012. Last season King led the Bulldogs in receptions (47) and touchdowns (eight), and was first in receiving yards (705). The Georgia staff was especially excited by King's performance in the Outback Bowl, when he torched Michigan State for 205 receiving yards on six catches -- "even though," said Murray, "I actually missed him on a few throws when he was wide open."
"Tavarres is an outstanding deep ball guy and his route-running skills are excellent," said Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. "He's a complete receiver. He came in with A.J. [Green] and he certainly learned a lot from him."
King and Green -- who made the NFL Pro Bowl last season as a rookie receiver for the Bengals -- talk at least once a week. This spring King watched dozens of YouTube clips that feature Green's NFL highlights. "A.J. inspires me to work hard and try to get to another level," said King, who says he has run a 4.36 40-yard dash. "We have a great wide receiver tradition here and hopefully I can continue it this season."
A native of Mount Airy, Ga., King was named the RISE Gatorade Georgia Football Player of the Year in 2007 after setting a state record with 1,632 receiving yards while a senior at Habersham Central High. He redshirted his freshman year in Athens and now has 27 career starts. King has also gotten things done in the classroom: He graduated in May with a degree in social studies education. ("I hope to teach or coach when I'm done playing football," he said.) And Murray believes that King already has an advanced degree in understanding the Georgia playbook.
"Tavarres knows what we're trying to do as well as anyone and, like A.J., he's really good at stepping on the defensive back's toes and getting the DBs to turn their hips," Murray said. "When that happens, Tavarres can do anything, and he'll definitely be open. He's also similar to A.J. in speed and breaking in and out of his cuts with amazing quickness."
If Georgia wins its first SEC title since 2005, the Murray-to-King connection so finely honed during those after-school sessions almost certainly will receive extra credit.
SI: How good can your team be?
MR: There will be a lot of close games in our league. If we can find a way to win those games, we've got a chance to become a champion.
SI: How do you feel about the state of your program?
MR: Without a doubt I like it. We've gotten a lot of early recruiting commitments. The entire coaching staff from last year has returned. We're poised to do well.
SI: Why did you get into coaching?
MR: I couldn't play anymore [after college at Miami]; I got cut for a second time, by the Dolphins [in 1984]. I really liked and respected coach Don Shula, and I wanted to do what he was doing.
SI: What's your favorite moment as a coach?
MR: The Dawg pile. It's the locker room scene after a big victory. Every once in a while it will start on the field.
SI: What does the average fan fail to understand about your job?
MR: So much comes across your desk that you have to handle and decide on -- and a lot of it doesn't really have anything to do with football.
SI: What do you do when you're not coaching?
MR: It's always built around family. I love to be able to do nothing -- just be with the family, relax and have no agenda. Maybe go to a movie or go swimming or play cards. Just enjoy each other without the responsibility of being a head coach.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.