We'll never know what could have been, thanks to another round of injuries that crippled Georgia's strides just as the getting was good.
An opening-week loss to Clemson was quickly forgotten after September victories against South Carolina and LSU; after knocking off Tennessee to open October, however, the bottom dropped out. The losses mounted: Georgia lost contributors and lost games, dropping SEC games to Missouri, Vanderbilt and Auburn – the latter in heartbreaking fashion – to finish third in the East Division, two full games behind the Tigers.
It seems as if Mark Richt has lost control of his team's injuries, to quote a popular phrase, which is highly ironic: Richt can control many things – wins, losses, recruiting, an offense, a defense – but not injuries, though he's certainly tried.
Yet there's a silver lining to be found, if you stare at it right. Last season was painful, clearly, but there's a benefit: Georgia's new cast is better for the growing pains.
Consider quarterback, for instance, where Hutson Mason enters the fall not as a little-used former reserve but a somewhat seasoned SEC starter, thanks to his late-season turn as the Bulldogs' starter – and keep in mind that Mason brings more experience to the table than many of his SEC peers.
Take the receiver corps, which dipped deep into its rotation throughout the course of the season, or the offensive line, which did the same; consider the entire defense, which took its youth-caused lumps and bruises but seems sturdier today – thanks in some major part to a change at coordinator – for last year's impediments.
There's always the chance that the storm clouds, largely in place since the final seconds against Alabama in 2012, slowly cede way for a bright 2014. If that's the case, Georgia won't view last fall as a lost season but the start of something special.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
I have Georgia at no worse than 10-2, very likely 11-1, neck-and-neck with South Carolina, with that date against the Gamecocks deciding the SEC East. Going 11-1 and taking the East means Georgia will very likely head into the SEC title game needing a win to play for the national championship.
In a nutshell: There's the Georgia team we expected, one that lost narrowly at Clemson but rebounded to top LSU and South Carolina to take firm control of the East Division heading into the heart of conference play. Then there's the Georgia team that ensued, one that lost its way amid round after round of crippling injuries. The Bulldogs would split their final eight games, dropping SEC tilts to Missouri, Vanderbilt and Auburn before losing the Gator Bowl to Nebraska. The wins, meanwhile, were of the unimpressive variety: Florida, Appalachian State, Kentucky and Georgia Tech – and the latter is always huge, obviously, but this wasn't a vintage matchup. The result was five losses for the first time since 2010 and just the third time in Richt's tenure.
High point: Topping the Gamecocks and Tigers. There were issues, true, mostly on defense, but the Bulldogs had always banked on this offense carrying the water while a young defense rounded into form.
Low point: Missouri marked the start of a long slide out of SEC contention.
Tidbit: Georgia is 31-1 under Richt when committing zero turnovers. The lone blemish came against Auburn on Nov. 13, 2010, when the Bulldogs had zero giveaways but came out on the sour end of a 49-31 decision.
Tidbit (ranked edition): Last year's team was just the second in the Football Bowl Subdivision since 2000 to beat two top-10 teams before Oct. 1, joining Alabama in 2008.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Georgian era poets
1. Robert Burns
2. William Blake
3. John Keats
4. William Wordsworth
5. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: I think Hutson Mason is going to have a superb one-year turn as Georgia's starting quarterback. Part of this optimism stems from his late-season turn as Aaron Murray's injury-caused replacement: Mason made two starts, against Georgia Tech and Nebraska, and played a good portion of the win against Kentucky – putting him far more ahead of the curve than he would have been otherwise. And he played well, all things considered, leading the Bulldogs past the Yellow Jackets and, against the Cornhuskers, getting little help from a sloppy receiver corps. There's also the idea that Mason is not your typical new guy; he's a fifth-year senior with as vast and deep a knowledge of this system as you could demand, and seems supremely motivated to make the most of this opportunity. While Georgia does need to identify its quarterback of the future, Mason is going to have a very strong season in the starting lineup.
He'll be helped not only by a very promising receiver corps – more below – but one of the best backfields in college football. Begin with junior Todd Gurley (989 yards), a preseason Heisman Trophy contender, and remember his production when healthy and upright: Gurley is a bell-cow, for lack of a better term, and the sort of ball-demanding runner who singlehandedly can carry this running game through SEC play. That Georgia goes deeper – much, much deeper – is simply icing on the cake.
Not that the rest of the crew isn't deserving of being viewed as more than mere backups: Keith Marshall is another all-league performer when healthy, as he seems to be after last year's knee injury; sophomore Brendan Douglas (345 yards) is assured of a role in the rotation; and incoming freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb have been since the jump as immediate-impact contributors. Health will be a concern until proven otherwise, but perhaps no team in the country – maybe Alabama, maybe Florida State, Nebraska, a few others – can tout this sort of backfield talent.
The offensive line must come together before the opener or risk becoming an Achilles heel. With three starters gone, the Bulldogs will build around senior center David Andrews, an all-conference contender with the experience to bridge the gap around an otherwise uncertain interior. Though sophomore Greg Pyke has secured the top spot at left guard, the Bulldogs could go in several different directions at left guard. The decision may hinge on how well John Theus takes to left tackle; if he struggles, Theus could slide to right tackle, with senior Mark Beard taking over the blind side and Kolton Houston moving to left guard. If Theus gets it done and a more conditioned Houston can handle right tackle, Beard will move to left guard and challenge sophomore Brandon Kublanow and senior Watts Dantzler for the starting job. If you want to think positively, Georgia does have options. On the other hand, this line has some growing up to do before taking on Clemson's powerful defensive front.
Defense: New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, fresh off a championship run at Florida State, will be just what the doctor ordered for a defense brimming with speed, athleticism and overall talent along the back seven. Like his predecessor, Pruitt will stress multiple looks throughout the defense, particularly up front and at linebacker; what separates Pruitt is his work in the secondary, with FSU as evidence, and his penchant for utilizing speed and aggressiveness in lieu of a bend-but-don't-break mentality – he'll be a favorite, basically, and quickly alter the way Georgia approaches its plethora of athletic ability at level of the defense.
The Bulldogs will remain, at the most basic level, a 3-4 defense – but often slide into a 4-3 or 4-2-5 look, depending on offensive personnel. The defense's strength, as you may have heard, stands at linebacker: Georgia returns seniors Ramik Wilson (133 tackles, 11.0 for loss) and Amarlo Herrera (112 tackles) along the inside, with Wilson a preseason All-America and Herrera equally valuable, if undervalued outside the SEC; sophomore Leonard Floyd (55 tackles, 6.5 sacks) on the strong side, where he had a banner rookie season; and junior Jordan Jenkins (45 tackles, 12.0 for loss), a disappointment on the weak side last fall but one of the top pure edge rushers in the SEC. Where you'll see a difference in 2014 is how the group fits within Pruitt's system, seeing that Georgia will be more willing to exchange Floyd with an extra defensive back against spread-out SEC offenses.
The secondary trades in the exotic for a simplified sense of direction: Pruitt doesn't use a strong and free safety but just safeties, period, doesn't delineate too much between a field and boundary cornerback, and will only use a true defensive back in a hybrid role – with the latter underlining how, as at FSU, Pruitt is going for speed and aggressiveness over mere size. The hybrid role seems in sturdy hands with converted running back J.J. Green, who has been one of the great surprises of the Bulldogs' offseason. Green has the athleticism, knowledge of offense and competitive streak to really shine as a first-year defensive contributor.
He could even make his mark along the back end, but that might be overthinking things: Green's athleticism seems best served closer to the box. That would leave the two safety spots to senior Corey Moore (35 tackles) and sophomore Quincy Mauger (57 tackles), the primary pair a season ago. But more than anywhere else on defense, I can see Pruitt using a wide range of options in the search for a solid rotation – and that sounds frightening, particularly with Clemson and South Carolina early, but he's more than earned the benefit of the doubt. The only sure-thing starter is senior cornerback Damian Swann, the most tested option among a unit dinged by attrition. Though redshirt freshman Aaron Davis leads the way on the opposite side, it may just be a matter of time before JUCO transfer Shattle Fenteng grabs the starting job.
The defensive front is fine, if largely nothing special. What the Bulldogs have, however, is depth: Georgia may go nine deep in its rotation, counting a few linemen who can dabble inside and out. Of this group, junior James DeLoach seems assured of a starting job at end after a strong offseason – he was one of the few defenders lauded by Pruitt, which has to count for something. Although he's on the smaller size for the 3-4 set, DeLoach could be a nice asset when Georgia flexes into a four-lineman formation. In fact, Georgia should end up using five or six ends in particular, with DeLoach joined by junior Sterling Bailey (34 tackles), senior Ray Drew (43 tackles, 6.0 sacks), senior Toby Johnson and converted linebacker Josh Dawson. There's also a good chance that redshirt freshman Josh Atkins makes an impact as a smaller interior lineman or bigger end, giving the defensive front even greater flexibility. Inside, the Bulldogs will rely on some combination of Atkins, Johnson, junior Chris Mayes and senior Mike Thornton. I think Mayes could have a really nice season.
Special teams: Georgia has one of the nation's best kickers in Marshall Morgan, a preseason All-America contender, and lands adequate production from the punting pair of Adam Erickson and Collin Barber – it should be better, especially when it comes to the directional punts so vital to field position. Where the Bulldogs go in the return game won't be decided until closer to the opener.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receivers: If healthy – and let's cross our fingers – the Bulldogs' receiver corps will rank among the best in the SEC, perhaps trailing only Alabama's crew of five-star talent. As noted earlier, however, injuries can be viewed a positive: This year's group is more seasoned for last year's dings and bruises, creating the potential for a far deeper rotation than at any point a season ago. It's a unit led by seniors Chris Conley (45 receptions for 651 yards) and Michael Bennett (41 for 538), as seasoned a pair as you'll find in the SEC, and buttressed by the potential found in sophomore Reggie Davis (11 for 257), a big-play threat capable of stretching the field while Conley and Bennett move the sticks.
What could lift this unit to new heights is the potential full-bore return of two huge pieces: Malcolm Mitchell is slowly working his way back into form after last year's knee injury – not to mention an unrelated springtime setback – and Justin Scott-Wesley (16 for 311), while suspended for the opener, could provide an enormous boost to Georgia's downfield passing attack. Let's just picture the best-case scenario, which has Conley, Mitchell and Bennett leading the charge; Scott-Wesley and Davis creating separation; senior Jonathon Rumph, a wildly gifted former JUCO transfer, carving out room against smaller defensive backs and in the red zone; walk-on Clay Johnson continuing his feel-good rush up the two-deep; and tight end Jay Rome – with some help – doing his part to recoup Arthur Lynch's lost production. Here's the funny thing: I don't think any of that is a stretch.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
South Carolina: A loss to the Gamecocks on Sept. 6 ends things for the Bulldogs, since Carolina's not going to lose the two games necessary to lift Georgia back to the top of the East Division. It's a schedule loaded with rivalry games, per the usual: Clemson's a newfound rival, in a way, just like Missouri, and South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech come from Oct. 11 through the end of the regular season.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: A healthy Georgia is a dangerous Georgia. This is clear at wide receiver, for example, where a clean and upright rotation might challenge Alabama's group for the best in the SEC. It's also the case at linebacker, which is fantastically gifted among its top quartet – perhaps the nation's best – but totally unproven along the second tier. Likewise at quarterback, where the Bulldogs need a full, healthy season from Mason. So that's the story, and it's a familiar one: In terms of talent, experience and overall ability, a complete Georgia team can hang with anyone – and beat anyone – in college football. This is the program's greatest asset and largest annual frustration.
I think a best-case scenario would find Georgia atop the East Division and in the midst of the playoff conversation, though this isn't really a team worthy of being viewed as more than a dark-horse championship contender. Take the offensive line, for example, which could be a weekly nuisance. Or the defensive line, which has depth but not a tremendous amount of next-level athleticism, if that makes sense. Consider the secondary, which clearly lacks the sort of experience and consistency Pruitt demands from this vital grouping. These are the weaknesses that leave Georgia outside the nation's top eight, to cite one number; these are also weaknesses that could very well be addressed before midseason, though I doubt Georgia gets its ducks in a row in time for Clemson and South Carolina.
Enough bad news. Here are the positives: Mason is going do well, the backfield is awesome, the receiver corps could be fantastic, the defensive line has a rotation, the linebacker corps is among the nation's best, the kicker is a potential All-American and the secondary, despite its flaws, will love playing in Pruitt's system. These positives – and that's a pretty long list – keep the Bulldogs in the thick of things in the East Division. Essentially, that South Carolina is the nation's most experienced team and hosts the Bulldogs in September could be viewed as deciding factors in the divisional race. This is still a team that could win 10 games during the regular season against a difficult schedule. Even a nine-win season might justify Georgia's spot among the top 15.
Dream season: Georgia loses to one of Clemson, Missouri and Auburn but finishes 11-1 overall and atop the East Division, perhaps a win away from a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Nightmare season: The Bulldogs lose five games: Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech.
Who's No. 13? This program is 8-4 in its most recent matchups with the 12 teams on its 2014 schedule.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014