Mark Richt is one of the most respected men in college athletics not just for what he has done on the field, but for how he is off it.
Since arriving in Athens a decade ago, Richt has led Georgia to six double-digit-win seasons, and his teams have finished in the top 10 (coaches' poll) six times. However, the Dawgs have lost quite a bit of momentum in the past two seasons, going 14-12 overall and just 7-9 in SEC play. Worse still, UGA is just 2-8 in its last 10 games against ranked teams. Richt has made a lot of staff changes in the past 20 months or so and he needs a strong season to show a lot of folks -- starting with Georgia AD Greg McGarity, who arrived from UF not that long ago -- that the recent past was just a fluke.
The pressure, which always exists at power programs, certainly has been cranked up even higher in Athens. Richt's staff, though, rallied by signing a highly touted recruiting class. Of course, his staff has almost always signed very highly touted recruiting classes.
The key guy to the 2011 class: Isaiah Crowell, ESPN's top-ranked running back recruit in the country and a guy many analysts have tabbed as the most important prospect Richt has signed in his tenure at Georgia.
It's hard to call any true freshmen pivotal because, no matter how hyped they may be, they're still such mysteries since no one can say just how mentally or physically ready they are for major college football. But if there's one that is in the spotlight in 2011, it's Crowell.
Georgia has an excellent young quarterback in Aaron Murray, but they have a thin O-line. The ground game was suspect in 2010, ranking 10th in the SEC. (Quite frankly, the Bulldogs should never be in the bottom half of the rushing rankings in the SEC. Ever.) On top of that, the Dawgs' two top returning tailback options -- Washaun Ealey and Caleb King -- didn't actually return to UGA for the 2011 season. Both are gone, so there's more press, er, opportunity for Crowell.
What's needed? Well, for Georgia to regain the momentum it needs to breathe new life into the Richt regime, Crowell needs to have an impact that rivals what Marcus Lattimore did last year for South Carolina.
Translation: Before Lattimore, the Gamecocks were a dismal rushing team. They ranked dead last in the SEC in rushing the previous three seasons and that lack of balance certainly hampered Steve Spurrier's offense. In 2007, South Carolina ranked 101st in rushing and 70th in scoring; In 2008, it was 112th in rushing and 96th in scoring and in '09, 91st in rushing and 102nd in scoring. Enter Lattimore, and the Gamecocks jump up to 60th in rushing and 38th in scoring. And, not so coincidentally, South Carolina finished ranked in the Top 25 (22nd) for the first time in Spurrier's six seasons there.
Obviously, all circumstances aren't identical. In Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks have an outside threat that challenges defenses more than what UGA will have now that A.J. Green is in the NFL. Then again, Murray is certainly as much if not more of a concern as Stephen Garcia for opposing defenses.
Unfortunately, for UGA, Crowell has been slowed by a groin injury while his biggest challenger for the RB job, Richard Samuel, has been dealing with a thigh injury. Both, though, are expected to be fine. It'll be fascinating to see this play out, especially since the opener against Boise State is just three weeks away, and the Week 2 meeting with Lattimore and South Carolina is equally as intriguing.
As for dealing with the weight of expectations, Crowell told reporters that he doesn't really think about it a lot: "My coaches are always telling me I'm not the savior. I'm just coming out here and working hard and trying to help my team."
Here are four other true freshmen who are also really on the spot in 2011: