TAMPA, Fla. — Georgia’s football players will carry the sting of a bowl loss with them into winter workouts for the second straight year, but left Florida feeling they still have plenty of reason this time to be optimistic about things to come in 2012.
“It’s definitely not the way you want to finish a season off and head into an offseason, but we’ve got to put it behind us,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I think the whole Dawg Nation is very excited. I know as a team we’re pretty excited about the future of this team and the direction we’re heading right now. We have to use this as motivation.”
The 33-30 triple-overtime setback to No. 12 Michigan State in the Outback Bowl left Georgia with a 10-4 record, but the schedule is set up where many will probably project another double-digit win season ahead.
There’s no Boise State on the nonconference slate and again no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas on the SEC schedule.
Georgia will have an experienced team that will be a favorite to make a return trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
“We’ve got a whole lot coming back,” said linebacker Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC with 13 1/2 sacks. “I’m really looking forward to the offseason and the season coming up. We’re definitely going to be better. We definitely are going to be bigger, stronger, faster.”
Georgia would return 18 of its Outback Bowl starters if it doesn’t lose any underclassmen to the NFL draft.
Even if some go — tight end Orson Charles, safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Cornelius Washington are eyeing the jump — Georgia is bringing back a bunch.
Coach Mark Richt said he told the returning players: “I’m very excited about the future of this team and what we can become in 2012.”
The Bulldogs will return not only Murray, the SEC’s active leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, but Georgia gets back its leader in receptions Tavarres King (47 catches for 705 yards with eight touchdowns), its top three tacklers in Shawn Williams, Jones and Mike Gilliard along with linebacker Alec Ogletree, who had 52 tackles in just eight games this season.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues that need to be fixed.
The Bulldogs were outscored in the second half of its last two games to LSU and Michigan State by a combined 62-11.
“We kind of ran out of gas,” said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose depth in the Michigan State game was thinned by injuries which hurt the pass rush. “We have a good team; we’ve improved, but we’ve got to understand that we’ve got to finish people off when we can.”
Isaiah Crowell, the team’s top rusher with 850 yards, heads into his sophomore season but he hardly looked like the SEC freshman of the year down the stretch. He had only 29 yards rushing on 15 carries in Georgia’s final four games and left the bowl after reinjuring an ankle.
Top tailback recruit Keith Marshall will start classes next week and practice this spring.
“We’ve got to become more consistent in the run game,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “I do think there’s some talent there, but we’ve just got to do a better job in that area.”
The biggest holes to fill are on the offensive line where Ben Jones, Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson must be replaced, but Georgia surrendered 33 sacks this season, including eight in the last two games and Michigan State had 17 tackles for a loss.
Junior college transfer Mark Beard and top tackle prospect John Theus join a group led by Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee. Sophomore David Andrews is the top candidate to replace Jones at center.
There will be new faces at punter and kicker to replace Drew Butler and Blair Walsh.
Kicker Marshall Morgan from Florida and punter Collin Barber from Cartersville will have a chance to win the jobs as freshmen.
Georgia’s roster was overhauled when some players were shown the door after a 6-7 season, but there should be less attrition this year.
Richt said he “got some good indicators from the future seniors and the guys that I know will be leaders in the future that have already come to me and said, ‘You know, coach, we really like the way this season went as far as the approach everybody took. … We just want to keep it going.’ I’m encouraged that they’re thinking that what we did is really good and we’re building a culture that I think is going to be really positive for the future.”
Backup quarterback Hutson Mason could be one transfer.
“We’ll discuss what he’s thinking,” Bobo said. “There’s a lot out there right now.”
Murray set a program record with 35 touchdown passes, but his 14 interceptions included four returned for touchdowns, including in three of Georgia’s four losses.
“I think he’s got a still relatively high ceiling to get better,” Bobo said. “We’ve got to do a better job of taking some of the pressure off of him and that’s mainly in the running game.”
Even if Charles enters the NFL draft, Georgia will return five of its top six receivers including Malcolm Mitchell (45 catches for 665 yards and four touchdowns).
“In time this one will heal,” Richt said after the Michigan State loss, “and we’ll get back on the road recruiting and our guys will take a little bit of a break and get back in town and going to school and get prepared for the next one.”
“I feel like the sky’s the limit,” King said, “and I feel like this team can do tremendous things.”