2014 CFN Preview: Is It Georgia's Turn?

Enough is enough, Georgia. Win the national title already!

Head coach: Mark Richt
14th year: 126-45
Returning Lettermen
Off: 23, Def. 24, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 23
Ten Best Georgia Players
1. RB Todd Gurley, Jr.
2. LB Ramik Wilson, Sr.
3. LB Leonard Floyd, Soph.
4. LB Jordan Jenkins, Jr.  
5. LB Amarlo Hererra, Sr.
6. QB Hutson Mason, Sr.
7. DE Ray Drew, Sr.
8. DE Toby Johnson, Sr.
9. CB Damian Swann, Sr.
10. C David Andrews, Sr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Clemson
Sep. 13 at South Carolina
Sep. 20 Troy
Sep. 27 Tennessee
Oct. 4 Vanderbilt
Oct. 11 at Missouri
Oct. 18 at Arkansas
Nov. 1 Florida (in Jax)
Nov. 8 at Kentucky
Nov. 15 Auburn
Nov. 22 Charleston Southern
Nov. 29 Georgia Tech

Could this be it? Could this be Georgia’s turn at bat? Could this really be the year it all comes together again and there’s a national championship shot there for the taking?

After years of speculation about Mark Richt’s job status – started by a mega-disappointment of a 2009 season and followed up by a 6-7 clunker – the hot seat talk has cooled as he’s now as settled in as he’ll ever be considering the fickle nature of the SEC world.

All you can reasonably do is put a great team on the field every year and then hope for the best. Last year was all about the injuries that decimated a team that was more than good enough to win the East, but on the plus side – as is always the case with a season like 2013 – there are several battle-tested players across the board now creating decent depth.

Even with the disappointing – but understandable – 8-5 record and Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska, there’s as much hope as ever for something big to happen.

The Clemson loss was a fight that could've gone either way, the Vanderbilt game actually would’ve gone the other way had the team been healthy, and the Auburn game tipped the absolute wrong way in an epic finish. It’s not right or fair to go with ifs and buts in the SEC, but if Georgia had been relatively healthy, it’s fair to think that last season would’ve been a third-straight double-digit win season and the ninth in 12 years.

Now, though, for Richt, going into his 14th year at the helm, it’s time to start winning the really, really big games, and with this team coming back, it’s time for Georgia to win the SEC championship – no matter what.

It’s not the type of thing that coaches like to talk about, but star quarterback Aaron Murray’s injury turned out to be blessing in disguise, giving Hutson Mason a solid few games of experience to be ready for this year. The linebacking corps started to come together, playmakers were found to fill in the gaps, and the adjustments were made to be good enough to hang with an Auburn and come close to fighting through to ten wins. But close doesn’t count in the SEC, or in the games against the non-conference big boys.

Georgia was close in the shootout with Clemson – and lost. Georgia had Auburn dead – and lost. Georgia had chances to stop Nebraska - and didn't. Georgia almost came up with the big drive to beat Alabama and win the 2012 SEC championship – and lost. Five of the last six games Georgia has lost were by a touchdown or less, and the loss at Colorado in 2010 and the 2006 shocker to Vanderbilt were the only two clunkers in the Richt era against teams that finished their seasons with losing records.

Florida, Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Tennessee all got the job done in the BCS era and won national titles. Georgia has surpassed Tennessee over the years, but it’s time expect nothing less than a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff and finally be included among the other big-name programs in the championship VIP room. It’s time to put the high expectations back on Richt and Georgia and assume that this really is a program that has think national title-or-bust.

And then hope and pray that everyone can stay healthy to make it happen.

What to watch for on offense: Don’t expect much of a drop-off from Aaron Murray to Hutson Mason. The overall numbers might not be quite as strong, and the passing game won’t average 314 yards a game again – the team won’t have to get into as many shootouts and Todd Gurley will eat up a chunk of the offensive workload on the ground – but Mason showed against Georgia Tech and Nebraska that he can sling it around and be a 300-yard passing threat when needed. With a healthier and experienced receiving corps, and with defenses focusing everyone and the waterboy on Gurley, expect a crafty senior like Mason to know exactly what he’s doing to make the Bulldog passing game among the most efficient in college football. The knock on Murray – fair or not - was that he couldn’t come up with the really, REALLY big win on a regular basis. Don’t be stunned if Mason does.

What to watch for on defense: If Georgia doesn’t have the best linebacking corps in America, it’s really, really close. Absolutely loaded, the Bulldogs bring back the 133 tackles and four sacks from Ramik Wilson in the middle, the 112 tackles and prototype size-speed on the weakside from Amarlo Herrera, Jordan Jenkins is a do-it-all veteran who’ll be starting for some NFL team next year, and then there’s the young guy, Leonard Floyd, who might be the next Jarvis Jones-like pass rusher - actually, Jenkins might be the better comparison to Jones - with blazing burst and an uncanny knack for getting into he backfield. Floyd is more like a big defensive back than a smaller defensive end, like Jones, but he’s going to be a statistical superstar on a team full of all-star linebackers. Watch how new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt turns this foursome loose – it’s going to be a must-see every week.

The team will be far better if… the return game doesn’t stink. Creating more takeaways would be nice after losing the turnover margin in eight of the 13 games – including all five losses – but the difference between being great and being national championship-fantastic could come down to special teams. PK Marshall Morgan is one of the nation’s best, and punter Collin Barber is solid, but the return game last year has to be far stronger after averaging a pathetic 18.6 yards per try. Sheldon Dawson and J.J. Green each averaged over 21 yards a pop, but there were rarely any big returns for a program that dominated in the return game over the years. The punt returns were even worse, averaging a miniscule 2.92 yards per try when ten yards an attempt was the norm just a few years ago and the 7.52-yard average of 2012 was a disappointment.

The Schedule: As always, the season starts out at 100 miles per hour, kicking things off with a revenge date against Clemson and then, after a week off, starting out SEC action at South Carolina. Fortunately, things ease up in a big way playing Troy, Tennessee and Vanderbilt at home - there can't be a miss against any of the three - before a tricky two-game road stretch at Missouri and Arkansas.

There's a week off before the Cocktail Party against the Gators, and there isn't a break the rest of the way. The second half isn't that bad with Auburn coming to Athens and the trip to Kentucky not that bad. It's all about getting through November 15th, and then, unless there's a date in the SEC championship, the conference season is over facing Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Todd Gurley. Opinions are mixed on where he would’ve gone had he been eligible for the NFL Draft this year. Running backs aren’t considered must-have top ten selections anymore, but with his size, speed and receiving skills, Gurley might have been the exception except for one issue – can he take the pounding? Always dinged up like all backs are, he might be tough and he might play though pain, but now he has be alive and in the mix for a full season and produce no matter what – that’s what the scouts are looking for. The talent is undeniable. He could put up 2,000 combined yards this season if fed the ball enough, and he’ll win a few games because he’ll be the best player on the field. Now he just has to stay on it.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Ramik Wilson. However, fellow linebacker Leonard Floyd could end up being the signature player of this D by the end of the year, and there’s no real argument if you want to make a case for Amarlo Herrera or Jordan Jenkins as the possible star of the defense as the season goes on. It’s Wilson who was in on just about every tackle last season and holding up in the middle after leading the SEC in stops. He can attack in the backfield and has great range, but with so many dangerous options around him, this year he can hang back a bit and focus more on eating up the run. Even if there isn’t as much flash, the production should be terrific.

Key players to a successful season: Senior S Corey Moore. And here’s the possible Achilles heel. Georgia had one of the best safety tandems in America coming into the offseason with Josh Harvey-Clemons one of the team’s leading tackler and Tray Matthews a rising young playmaker, but they’re gone. Matthews is sitting out the year at Auburn after being booted from the Bulldogs for an incident in the classroom, and Harvey-Clemons also dismissed. Throw in the transfer of corner Shaq Wiggins, and the secondary is in need of help around veteran corner Damian Swann. Moore was a spot starter last season making 35 tackles with a pick and a sack, and now it’ll be up to him to try to secure the middle of the defensive backfield. Considering the front seven should be devastating, Moore and the secondary have work to do to hold up their end of the bargain.

The season will be a success if ... Georgia gets into the inaugural College Football Playoff. One thing might lead to another, but winning the SEC championship is meaningless now unless there’s a spot in the final four attached to it. The Bulldogs don’t have to win the conference title to get there – 11-2 with a loss in the SEC title game, or possibly even 11-1 and no trip Atlanta could get the job done – but the Playoff is the new standard and that’s what Mark Richt and company have to do. Yes, winning the national title is the goal for a team this good, but either you’re in the fun or you’re not, and for Georgia, being one of the four best teams at the end of the year would be amazing.

Key game: Sept. 13 at South Carolina. Missouri should be good again and Florida will be far, far better, but the SEC East should come down to the winner in Columbia in Georgia’s SEC opener. The Gamecocks won three in a row in the series before losing last year’s 41-30 thriller, but they were able to overcome the defeat to be in the hunt for the East title until the very end. The loser will probably have to be perfect the rest of the way to end up in Atlanta, while the winner will have the inside track and should – if South Carolina beats Texas A&M to start the season and Georgia gets by Clemson – should be ranked in the top five, if not the top three.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Field Goals: Georgia 24-of-26 – Opponents 16-of-23
- Fourth Down Conversions: Opponents 14-or-22 (64%) – Georgia 13-of-22 (59%)
- Punt Return Average: Opponents 4.3 yards – Georgia 2.9

- 2014 Georgia Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

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