Georgia may have a similar situation in 2009, thanks to the presence of standout seniors Geno Atkins (6-1, 287) and Jeff Owens (6-3, 306). They were supposed to be the SEC's premier tackle tandem in 2008 but Owens blew out a knee in the first quarter of Game 1 and missed the rest of the season. Now he's back and ready to pair with Atkins, who registered 34 stops and a whopping 32 quarterback hurries last fall.
Georgia needs big years out of Atkins and Owens because the Dawgs surrendered 122.3 rushing yards per game and 24 rushing touchdowns last fall. As a result, UGA allowed 24.5 points per game and failed miserably in its bid to live up to a preseason No. 1 national ranking.
Assuming Atkins and Owens manage to stuff the run, the question is: Who'll provide speed off the edge in the pass rush? That job apparently will fall to Justin Houston, who registered 3 sacks in the spring game. Houston, however, will miss Game 1 (at Oklahoma State) and Game 2 (vs. South Carolina) on a disciplinary suspension.
On a positive note, Georgia returns the SEC's most productive linebacker in Rennie Curran, who led the league with 115 stops a year ago. Middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is gone but he recorded just 33 stops during an injury-plagued 2008 season. Moving over to fill the void in the middle will be Akeem Dent, who registered 46 stops as the strongside linebacker last fall.
The Dawgs have a linebacker-sized safety in Reshad Jones, a 6-2, 214-pounder who recorded 76 stops and five interceptions at free safety in '08. He'll play strong safety in '09.
Since Ellerbe was limited last fall, the only significant loss from Georgia's 2008 defense is cornerback Asher Allen, who elected to bypass his senior season and turn pro. His spot will be filled by Brandon Boykin, who is somewhat unproven after registering just five tackles a year ago.
As always, Georgia will field some of the SEC's finest special teams. Blair Walsh is back after hitting 15 of 23 field-goal tries, including a 52-yarder. And Prince Miller looks to be the league's premier punt-return specialist. He averaged 21.2 yards last fall, with a 92-yarder included.
Bottom line: Georgia's defense has a chance to be dramatically better than it was in 2008. It had better be because it may have to carry a revamped Bulldog offense that projects to struggle early.