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Good, but not great

TAMPA, Fla. -- Georgia's football team unquestionably bounced back in a big way in 2011, but the Bulldogs' season was one of contrasting points.

Yes, the Bulldogs (10-4) won the SEC East title, but they avoided conference titans LSU, Alabama and Arkansas on the schedule.

Yes, they won 10 consecutive games, but that winning streak is bookended by two-game losing skids at both the beginning and end of the season. That includes season-ending losses to LSU and Michigan State where they led at halftime before sloppy second halves.

Yes, Georgia beat Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech in the same season for the first time since 1981, but those four rivals finished the season with an unsightly 28-23 combined record.

"Our guys had a good year," Georgia coach Mark Richt said, "not a great year."

Nonetheless, Georgia's players and coaches exuded optimism over the program's future after Monday's Outback Bowl, even after blowing a 16-0 halftime lead and losing 33-30 to the Spartans on a blocked field goal in the third overtime period.

The Bulldogs could return as many as 19 starters from Monday's bowl game -- the exact number will remain unclear until NFL draft-eligible players like tight end Orson Charles and safety Bacarri Rambo announce whether they will return for their senior seasons -- and they again will miss LSU, Alabama and Arkansas on next season's schedule.

"We've just got to get better in this offseason and try to correct the little small things that we didn't do in the last two games in the second half," Rambo said. "We've just got to get better at those things, and once we get those things down, we'll be pretty good."

The biggest question marks will be on the offensive line -- a group that loses three senior starters in center Ben Jones and tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson -- and on special teams, where both punter Drew Butler and kicker Blair Walsh are seniors.

Georgia otherwise seems to be set up for success in 2012 after a resurgent season led by its defense and second-year coordinator Todd Grantham.

Following years of declining defensive results, the Bulldogs made enormous strides while executing Grantham's 3-4 scheme this season, ranking among the national leaders in all major defensive categories.

"I think you take away that we've improved," Grantham said. "We've got guys playing the right way. I think that we're on the up side, and when you look at it, we were able to get to the SEC championship, we were able to get to a big bowl game. But we didn't win either one of those, so we're not there yet. That becomes the next step."

The Bulldogs unanimously said this season was a step in the right direction, but that's all it was -- just one step.

As they enter the offseason, Georgia's players and coaches believe their youth-dominated team is capable of greater things if they attack this offseason the way they did a year ago, after blowing their bowl game against Central Florida.

"It's definitely not the way that you want to finish the season off and head into an offseason, but we've got to put it behind us. We've got a long offseason ahead of us," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "I think the whole Dawg Nation is excited, and I think as a team we're pretty excited about the future of this team and the direction we're heading right now. We've just got to use this as motivation, this whole season as motivation, and work hard this offseason and get ready for a great 2012."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.