TAMPA, Fla. - The Georgia Bulldogs are having to deal with a bowl loss for a second consecutive offseason, but the upcoming months should be very different from a year ago.
Georgia has an opportunity this time around to build on a 10-win season. There will be no questions concerning the job security of coach Mark Richt, and players in the minutes just after Monday's 33-30 triple-overtime loss to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl were wishing the 2012 season started later this month.
"Absolutely I do," All-America outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "We've got a whole lot coming back in this season coming up. We're definitely going to be better, and we're definitely going to be bigger, stronger and faster. This upcoming season is really going to be special for us."
One quick way to ensure a good start to next season is minimizing the early departures to the NFL. Tight end Orson Charles and safety Bacarri Rambo are the most likely juniors to leave, and there are other potential wild cards such as outside linebacker Cornelius Washington and cornerback Branden Smith.
There also are aspects moving forward that can't be remedied within a matter of days.
Georgia's running game struggled down the stretch this season, producing 78 yards in the 42-10 loss to LSU at the SEC championship and 51 yards in the bowl. Three starters on the offensive line will have to be replaced, and an equally important concern these next few months is how the turbulent tailback position shakes out.
The Bulldogs had six tailbacks carry the ball Monday, including Smith and outgoing cornerback Brandon Boykin, and early enrollee Keith Marshall is about to join the mix.
"We have not been able to run the ball consistently," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said, "but there are going to be times where you have lost-yardage plays or get stopped or only get 2 or 3 yards, but you've got to keep firing away at it. We've got to get some consistency at that position.
"I do think there is some talent there, but we've just got to do a better job in that area."
Defensively, the Bulldogs made gargantuan strides in the second year of coordinator Todd Grantham and entered the bowl ranked third nationally in fewest yards allowed. Georgia joined a long list of teams that wilted in the second half against LSU, but its second half against the Spartans was among its worst of the season.
The Bulldogs will lose Boykin and defensive end DeAngelo Tyson, but that could be it if there is no early bolting to the NFL.
"I'm excited about the future," Grantham said. "We've got a good team and we've improved, but we've got to understand that we've got to finish people off when we can."
Georgia went 10-4, defeating 10 teams that likely will finish the season unranked in the Associated Press or USA Today polls -- Auburn (8-5) could get ranked after its Chick-fil-A pasting of Virginia -- and losing to four teams that could end up in the top 10. This season did not include that signature victory, though the Bulldogs did snag a rare win over Florida, but there were no embarrassing defeats.
The Bulldogs lost at home to Kentucky during their 8-5 season in 2009 and lost to Colorado and Central Florida last year during a 6-7 debacle.
"I would describe the 2011 season as an amazing one where we got some redemption," Boykin said. "This time last year, people were talking about the coaches being on the hot seat and that Georgia was not like it used to be. We had leaders this season who were committed to get this program back where it needs to be."
Said senior center Ben Jones: "If we had gotten Coach Richt fired, I would have felt bad for the rest of my life."
Richt said the catalyst to this season's turnaround was how the Bulldogs felt after last season's loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl. The Bulldogs had their mettle tested after opening losses to Boise State and South Carolina, but they regrouped to reel off 10 straight wins and capture their first SEC East title since 2005 before dropping their last two.
"It's not the way you want to finish a season off and head into the offseason, but we've got to put it behind us," said quarterback Aaron Murray, who set a single-season school mark with 35 touchdown passes. "We've got a long offseason ahead of us, and I think the whole Dog Nation is excited. I know we're excited about the future of this team and the direction that we are headed now.
"It's never a great feeling to go seven or eight months with this feeling in your mouth, but hopefully our guys are mature enough to use this as motivation for the offseason."