I'm still on my honeymoon for the next few days, but I had a VERY long flight to get here, so I took some of that time to write up a few predictions for 2010.
Since I'm leaving in a week, I figure I don't have to be too accountable for my prognosticating anyway, so with that in mind, here are 11 things I'm guessing will come true in the 2010 season...
1.) Justin Houston and Cornelius Washington will combine for at least 20 sacks.
The two combined for 11.5 last season, which is a decent enough number. But remember: Houston missed three games, Washington wasn't a starter, and both were playing defensive end in Willie Martinez's less blitz-happy scheme. This season, things will be much different. Both Houston and C-Wash will be full-time starters at outside linebacker, where the lack of depth also means they'll be on the field often. Add to that the notion that Todd Grantham wants to send his rushers after the QB as much as possible, and perhaps setting the bar at 20 might be a bit low.
2.) Aaron Murray will not match any of Joe Cox's major stats from 2009.
Few fans -- at least for the near future -- are likely to remember the Joe Cox Era as a fond one, but what's often overlooked is just how impressive many of his stats were. Cox completed nearly 56 percent of his passes, threw for nearly 2,600 yards and tossed 24 touchdowns last season. But that wasn't necessarily a good thing. His 332 passing attempts were far more than most fans would have liked, and way too much of the offense's success and failure rested on Cox's arm.
This year, Murray isn't likely to approach Cox's passing numbers (although the completion percentage might be a reasonable goal) but that also means Murray will be carrying less of the load on offense -- which is a good thing. It also should mean that Murray won't approach another of Cox's stats from last season: 15 INTs.
3.) The pass D will be much better, but the run D will be a question mark.
I love what Scott Lakatos is doing with the secondary, and I love the talent that Georgia will have in the defensive backfield, so while there will be three new starters on the field in 2010, I don't see it as a problem. Up at the line of scrimmage, however, things could get trickier.
While the D was widely criticized throughout the past two years, it's easy to forget that Georgia was actually fairly stout against the run. The Dawgs finished third in the SEC against the run last season, allowing just 3.42 ypc, and no individual rusher topped 100 yards against them. But now Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston are all gone, meaning major changes on the D line. Abry Jones should have a strong year, but his strength is more as a rusher than a run stuffer, and DeAngelo Tyson -- the current leader in the race for starting nose tackle -- is undersized for the position. Add to that an aggressive defensive style in the new 3-4, the ongoing learning curve for the linebackers (particularly the MLBs), the memories of last year's failures by defensive players to adjust on the fly and the loss of Rennie Curran, the team's best tackling LB… and it all adds up to what could very well be the Bulldogs' big bug-a-boo on D in 2010 -- lots of yards allowed on the ground.
4.) The turnover ratio will be in the Dawgs' favor this year.
Last year Georgia finished the season at minus-16 in turnover margin, which wasn't just bad -- it approached historically awful. But virtually everything was going against the Bulldogs last year. Cox threw too often. The defense was passive. Heck, the D couldn't even pick up a fumble to save its life -- something Richt attributed a bit too often to "luck" but I'm not so sure there wasn't more to it than that.
This season, however, Murray should be throwing less, and Lakatos will have his DBs going after takeaways in the secondary. And while luck (and a simple regression to the mean) should help Georgia find a few more loose balls in 2010, something tells me Grantham will be in his guys' ears talking to them about how to make their own luck, too.
5.) Georgia will beat both South Carolina and Arkansas.
Most fans have these two early season games circles as potential losses, and for good reason. Both South Carolina and Arkansas played Georgia close last year, and both teams appear to be improved this year. Add to that the notion that Murray will still be getting his feet wet and the D will still be getting the hang of the 3-4, and the potential for disaster seems high.
But… neither of these teams runs the ball well, and as I wrote, I think it'll be the run D where Georgia has problems early on. And neither team was particularly stout on D last season, particularly against the run. South Carolina allowed 16 rushing TDs in 2009, while Arkansas allowed opposing rushers nearly 4 yards per carry. That means UGA has a good chance to run Caleb King and Washaun Ealey early and often, build a time-of-possession advantage that keeps the D off the field and, ideally, Mike Bobo only needs to ask Aaron Murray to manage the game and not make mistakes. I see a 3-0 start to 2010 and expectations getting raised quickly...
6.) Georgia will struggle with Mississippi State and Kentucky.
While I think the Dawgs can get by those early tests, it wouldn't surprise me if they struggled in a couple of games most fans expect them to win. Their trip to Mississippi State could turn out to be every bit the test that Murray's first road game in Columbia was, but against the Western Bulldogs, Murray will have less time to prepare and heavier expectations on his shoulders. Mississippi State is an improving team that played LSU and Florida tough last year.
Georgia fans are all too familiar with the stumbling block that Kentucky represents, too. This year, the Wildcats will provide Georgia with one of its toughest tests against the run and the game has "trap" written all over it with Florida waiting one week later. Georgia is really just a few plays away from riding a four-game losing streak to the Wildcats (seriously, how crazy is that?) and the task won't get any easier this time around.
7.) Georgia will lose three games… but will beat the Gators.
I think Georgia loses to either Mississippi State or Kentucky this year, and I think the Auburn game will be a tough one for them to pull out. Somewhere on the schedule, there's a good chance another loss will crop up, too… but I'm going out on a limb and saying it won't be to Florida.
While the outcome the past two years has been horrendous, that's been far more about a 9-0 edge in the turnover ratio for Florida than it has been about the Bulldogs being significantly outplayed. In fact, in both games, Georgia had its moments, but each time they fell behind early and were forced to abandon their game plan midway through the third quarter.
The truth is, I have little to support my prediction here other than a gut feeling, but at some point, after all these years, doesn't Georgia have to have the ball bounce its way for a change?
(And remember, UGA won in 2004, then lost '05 and '06. They won again in 2007, then lost '08 and '09. I'm sensing a pattern there that says 2010 is a win.)
8.) The Dawgs will play Wisconsin in the Cap One Bowl.
It wouldn't surprise me if Georgia won the East -- particularly if they end up with the tie-breaker over Florida -- but even if they do, it'd be tough to earn a BCS game with three losses, so they'd need to win the SEC title to make the Sugar Bowl. But after last year's disappointments and all the questions entering this year, I'm thinking the Cap One would actually be a nice step forward and would help set the tone for 2011.
9.) A.J. Green's departure won't be a completely forgone conclusion.
Don't get me wrong, I think there's virtually no way that Green sticks around. But I'll also be surprised if he doesn't play it coy for most of the year, and with the NFL's potential labor problems added to the mix, there will at least be some minor air of mystery surrounding Green's decision. And regardless of how it all plays out, I'm going to predict Green leaves with his name atop a lot of Georgia receiving records after this season. How about a line of 84 catches, 1,280 yards and 12 touchdowns?
10.) Georgia will have three players taken in the first round of next year's NFL draft.
Green is a given. Clint Boling is likely to end up there, too. As for the third? That's a wild card for right now, but I could definitely see Brandon Boykin, Cordy Glenn or Justin Houston playing themselves into the mix, should any decide to leave early. My money says at least one will.
11.) Mark Richt won't be "on the hot seat" next offseason.
I'm thinking this season will be a lot like the finale of "Lost" -- good but not great, and a lot of questions won't be answered, but on a purely emotional level, there will be a lot to feel good about. There will still be some anonymous posters grumbling incoherently about the program's decline, but the groundwork laid by the new defensive coaches and the development of Aaron Murray by year's end should leave most fans with a lot more hope than frustration.
And while a lot of people look at the hiring of a new AD as a reason for Richt to be concerned, I don't see it that way. Firing a coach as successful as Richt would be an extremely bold move for a brand new AD in his first year of work, and he'd essentially be lighting a torch under his own seat if he didn't bring in a big name afterward. Given the current economic conditions and the lack of any clear quality candidate, I can't imagine any AD in his first year would be excited by that possibility.
Of course, by the time all this actually plays out, I'll be shoveling snow out of my driveway in Philly and wondering why I thought leaving the South was such a good idea to begin with. But feel free to track me down (My new Phillies blog will be HERE) and remind me about how smart or stupid I was with these predictions.
OK, back in a few more days with a final handful of posts before the move.