Dec 14

By the end of last season, the Georgia defense had done just that under first-year coordinator Kevin Ramsey. Despite having some of the most athletic and physically gifted players in the SEC, the Bulldogs fell apart and were last in the league in total yards (382.6) and passing yards (278.1) per game. Georgia also gave up 25.9 points per game (second-most in the conference) and gave up a combined 105 points to its three biggest SEC rivals (Florida, Tennessee and Auburn).

georgSo, a week after national signing day, Donnan hired his old friend Gibbs, with whom he worked during Switzer’s glory years at Oklahoma. Ramsey, hired away from Tennessee a year earlier, called the Gibbs hiring “deceitful” and called Donnan “Pontius Pilate.” That left Gibbs–fair or not–saddled as the Savior.

This is what Gibbs has walked into and why this potential Ambush in the Ozarks is more important than it looks. The Razorbacks are rebuilding, but they’ll ride into the season on an unbeaten streak at home under third-year coach Houston Nutt. Arkansas has one of the SEC’s best tailbacks in Cedric Cobbs, and hotshot red-shirt freshman quarterback Gary Brashears steers Nutt’s passing offense.

For Georgia, the Arkansas game falls one week before the much-awaited showdown with Tennessee in Athens. If the Bulldogs truly are a force in the East Division, winning a game ripe with risk is essential.

“We can’t look ahead of anybody,” says Georgia quarterback Quincy Carter. “That would be ridiculous. We’ve been pretty good the last couple of years about not looking past teams. This year, it’s more important than ever.”

Especially considering Georgia is primed to end years of heartache against Florida and Tennessee. The Bulldogs haven’t beaten the Vols and Gators in the same season since 1988, and Florida and Tennessee haven’t had this many preseason questions in years. Georgia, meanwhile, may be putting it all together.

The Bulldogs always have been proficient on offense under Donnan and are loaded this season with dangerous skill players. Carter a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and tailback Jasper Sanks is a 1,000-yard back if he’s healthy. For the first time in Carter’s three seasons, Georgia will be able to stretch the field with the addition of speedy wideouts Durell Robinson and Reggie Brown.

It all adds up to the buzz looming over Athens this offseason: Georgia will be as good as its defense. You win big games with defense, and it’s no coincidence the Bulldogs are 3-9 under Donnan against rivals Florida, Tennessee and Georgia Tech.

“I think we all understand what needs to be done here, and I don’t think we’re that far from being there,” says Gibbs, who worked in private business in Norman, Okla., after being fired as head coach of the Sooners five years ago. “But you can’t expect things to go a certain way. You’d better work your tail off to get where you want to be.”

It also helps to have talent and potential-of which Georgia has plenty. It starts with Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud, who may be the best tackle tandem in the nation. If star sophomore rush end Charles Grant returns from a knee injury, the line will be dominant with the return of starting end Bruce Adrine and injured end Terin Smith.

Speedy linebackers Boss Bailey, Kendrell Bell and Will Witherspoon all return, as does the entire secondary: cornerbacks Jamie Henderson and Tim Wansley and safeties Cap Burnett and Terreal Bierria. As bad as the defensive numbers were for the Bulldogs last season, consider this: Georgia led the SEC in forced turnovers (30).

Simply put, the possibilities are scary. Then again, there are those who insist the Bulldogs have essentially the same players who performed below standards last season. How can a team with so much talent and so many high school All-Americans play so poorly in big games?

The answer may be as simple as Ramsey’s inexperience. Or it may go deeper. The Bulldogs were notoriously out of position last season and looked lost at times against even basic offensive sets. There was arguing between defensive assistants on the field and in the press box, and at one point, former coordinator Joe Kines replaced Ramsey in mid-game to make calls.

So what exactly will Gibbs bring? The subtle changes will include stunts and positioning of Seymour and Stroud to take advantage of Grant’s speed rush, and rolling Burnett and Bierria into double coverage to help corners–who were badly out of position at times last season. Georgia also will use more zone blitzing to take advantage of its speed at linebacker, both in drops and blitzes.

Donnan insists the scheme will be the same attacking style, that Gibbs will tweak things and make the Bulldogs more efficient and confident. He’d better because Gibbs’ job isn’t the only one on the line. Donnan has pleaded for patience from the rabid Georgia faithful, but he can no longer avoid the inevitable.

It has been 18 years since Georgia last won the SEC championship, back in the day when Herschel frolicked and the Junkyard Dogs toyed with opposing offenses. If the Bulldogs can’t get by Arkansas, the championship drought will stretch closer to two decades.

Seymour and Stroud will set the tone against the Razorbacks, stuffing running lanes and limiting Cobb’s impact. Georgia will blitz linebackers–specifically, Bell, one of the SEC’s best pass rushing linebackers–to confuse Brashears and create turnovers. The Bulldogs’ offense will then take over to set up the Tennessee game and a chance to make an early statement in the SEC race.

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