TAMPA -- Sometimes a lofty preseason ranking can be as simple as a returning star on offense, a returning star on defense and a favorable schedule.
Georgia has that covered for 2012.
Regardless of Monday afternoon's outcome against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, the Bulldogs are expected to begin next season in the nation's top 10 and perhaps the top five. Georgia has been ranked in 10 consecutive Associated Press preseason polls under coach Mark Richt but hasn't been pegged in the top 10 since being No. 1 before the 2008 season.
"If you look at our team coming back next year, we have anywhere from 15 to 17 starters who will be returning," redshirt sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray said. "We're going to be pretty talented next year, and I think people will say, 'Hey, watch out for Georgia.' We're not going to come out like we did this season, when I don't think many teams were worrying about us.
"People understand that we'll be a team next year that's vying for another SEC championship."
Georgia wrapped up its practices for the Spartans with a 90-minute workout Saturday morning.
The Bulldogs are 10-3 and reeled off 10 consecutive victories before getting shellacked 42-10 by No. 1 LSU in the league title game. LSU, a program currently overrun with stellar sophomores, is the most likely preseason No. 1 for 2012, with Southern California and Alabama expected to get consideration as well.
Murray might be the biggest individual reason for Georgia's bright outlook for next season, having completed 218 of 371 passes (58.8 percent) this year for 2,861 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns. Georgia's top five tailbacks are scheduled to return, and they will be adding touted Keith Marshall in a few days as an early enrollee. The top five receivers are expected to be back as well.
The biggest question will be whether junior tight end Orson Charles decides to turn pro, and the obvious concern will be replacing center Ben Jones and tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson.
"We have some great guys coming back, and Aaron is a great quarterback," redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "He works hard, and I know he's going to take us to the promised land. We've just got to keep believing."
Jones has been the best player on a defense that ranks third nationally by allowing just 268.5 yards a game. He earned All-America honors with a team-leading 69 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks, and if he registers a sack against the Spartans, he would break David Pollack's single-season school mark.
If junior safety Bacarri Rambo, Georgia's other All-American this season, elects to return, the Bulldogs will bring back 12 of their top 13 tacklers.
And then there is the slate of opponents.
When the SEC released its 2012 schedule this past week that contained the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M, the Bulldogs came out glowing. Georgia will have to face one Bowl Subdivision team -- South Carolina -- that won more than eight overall games this season, and the six-pack of Auburn (4-4), Florida (3-5), Kentucky (2-6), Ole Miss (0-8), Tennessee (1-7) and Vanderbilt (2-6) went a combined 12-36 in league play.
The Bulldogs opened this season against Boise State in Atlanta but will open next season against Buffalo in Athens.
"We have an opportunity next year to do something special," junior inside linebacker Christian Robinson said. "With the guys we have coming back, we have a great chance to make a run."
Said Jones: "It's a schedule that we should run the table with. We've got some pretty good teams in there, but we should definitely come out on top."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...