The sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs are a dark horse candidate to make a run at the BCS National Championship, and that quest begins on Saturday afternoon when they host the Buffalo Bulls in non-conference action.
Buffalo's 2011 campaign was one disappointment after another en route to a 3-9 record, though it was actually an improvement upon its two-win season in 2010. Coach Jeff Quinn's Bulls managed to play reasonably well at home, with wins over Stony Brook (35-7), Ohio University (38-37), Akron (51-10), although they lost all six of their road tilts. UB is hoping for a better showing in the new- look Mid-American Conference this season.
Led by 11th-year head coach Mark Richt, Georgia put together a very strong showing in 2011 with a 10-4 overall record. They went 7-1 in the SEC, winning the Eastern Division and earning the right to play LSU in the conference championship game, but ultimately fell short of a BCS bowl bid by losing to the Tigers, 42-10. In the Outback Bowl, the Bulldogs lost a hard-fought battle to No. 12 Michigan State, 33-30 in triple-overtime, but still finished the season ranked 18th in both major polls.
Saturday's clash marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
Following the departure of quarterback Chazz Anderson, Buffalo had an open competition in the offseason between Jerry Davis and Alex Zordich to determine his replacement under center. In the end, Zordich came out on top, though he still has a lot to prove as he's thrown just 1 touchdown against 6 interceptions in his career.
Alex Neutz returns to the receiving corps, and he figures to improve upon an impressive sophomore season (43 rec, 641 yds, 4 TDs) now that he is the team's unquestioned No. 1 target. Cordero Dixon and Fred Lee will also figure in the passing game.
The focal point of the offense will once again be tailback Branden Oliver, who ranked 14th in the NCAA in rushing yards per game (116.3). He also set a school record with 1,395 rushing yards, and he has a great chance to have another big year running behind a veteran offensive line, which returns four starters.
Not surprisingly, the Bulls' nine-loss campaign did not reflect kindly on the defense. The unit allowed 28 points or more in nine of its 12 games in 2011. The addition of new defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, who has 45 years of coaching experience, is a step in the right direction.
The defensive line is inexperienced, with just one returning starter (defensive end Steven Means), but the Bulls will try to combat that weakness with quality at the linebacker position. Khalil Mack (20.5 TFL) was named to the All-MAC First Team and is capable of making plays all over the field, and Lee Skinner only figures to take another step forward following an impressive freshman season (80 tackles).
The secondary also remains largely intact. Safety Isaac Baugh will provide senior leadership for a unit trying to increase its big-play quota.
The coach and his players believe the pieces are in place for an improvement upon last year's record.
"Everybody knows we've got to work way harder than last year to get where we want to be," Mack said. "We have the experience, we have a lot of people returning on both sides of the ball."
The Bulldogs were one of the more potent offensive teams in the SEC a year ago, ranking only behind Arkansas and Alabama in total offense with 408.5 yards per game, while putting up 32 points per outing.
The catalyst once again will be quarterback Aaron Murray, who completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 3,149 yards and a league-best 35 touchdowns, earning him Second Team All-SEC honors in 2011. After showing improvement in each of his first two seasons as a starter, the junior hopes to take the next step in 2012 as a potential Heisman contender.
Murray has an array of receivers to distribute the ball to, led by senior Tavarres King, who tallied career-highs in yards (705) and touchdowns (8) in 2011. Despite being part of one of the SEC's more reliable receiving corps, King is confident he and his cohorts can improve.
"I certainly have to step up my level of play," King said. "I think that I'm going to do that and continue to be consistent for this team. I've got Michael Bennett, Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wooten (with me at receiver) - those guys are ones that you can count on week-in and week-out. I feel like we can do a good job."
Taking over the starting tailback job from Isaiah Crowell, who was dismissed from the team this summer following an arrest, will be sophomore Ken Malcome, who rushed for just 183 yards last season.
Returning for Georgia's defense this season is one of the nation's top playmakers in Jarvis Jones, who was named to the All-SEC First Team, and a First Team All-American after logging 70 tackles, 19.5 TFL and 13.5 sacks last year. Hoping to cement himself as a top-tier NFL prospect, Jones will have plenty of motivation to improve.
Safety Barcarri Rambo (SEC-best 8 INTs in 2011) was also named an All-American in 2011, though he is expected to miss the first four games of the season while serving a suspension.
Other key members of the Georgia defense returning are safety Shawn Williams (75 tackles, 4 interceptions), cornerback Sanders Commings (55 tackles, 1 interception) and linebacker Michael Gilliard (80 tackles, 7 TFL).
Perhaps the most intriguing Bulldog this year is Malcolm Mitchell. He put together a great freshman season at receiver in 2011 (45 rec, 665 yds, 4 TDs), but this year the super-athlete will see action at cornerback as well. Richt wants to use Mitchell primarily on defense in the beginning of the season, though the plan is to eventually have him take equal snaps on both sides of the ball.