It must be frustrating, being the ones who always come up short.
Such is life for Georgia football. In 16 years of the BCS era, the Bulldogs went to 16 bowls -- and currently own the third-longest active bowl streak -- but made only three BCS games. They won at least 10 games eight times, but captured only two SEC titles. They have every reason to be among the giants of the sport, but they've spent the era watching the balance of power fluctuate between hated rival Florida in the SEC East, and Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the West. They're perennially the hunter, not the hunted.
So coming off a disappointing 8-5 season, moving on without record-setting four-year starter Aaron Murray at quarterback, it stands to reason that Georgia should not be taken seriously as a top-tier national title contender in 2014. But in reality, few teams are as equipped to make a leap straight to College Football Playoff caliber play than Georgia, which endured a rough 2013 fraught with a combination of bad injury luck and a young, raw defense that returned only three starters, but is now positioned to rebound in a big way.
We saw a similar situation last year, when Missouri bounced back from an injury-ravaged 5-7 SEC debut season to win the division. If anyone is capable of pulling off a similar feat, it's Georgia, which saw running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall; receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley, Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph; and tight end Jay Rome all miss time. That's not to mention Murray, who tore his ACL against Kentucky in November, paving the way for new starter Hutson Mason, now a senior, to get a couple starts under his belt (he threw for a total of 619 yards in a win over Georgia Tech and a loss to Nebraska) for an early jump on 2014.
Of all those injured players, only Murray won't return this year. Assuming better injury luck, Georgia will have an endless arsenal of playmakers to surround its new quarterback, led by the nation's most talented running back in Gurley, one of its best backups in Marshall (who is recovering from an ACL tear) and a deep, experienced group of receivers that also features a breakout candidate in sophomore deep threat Reggie Davis.
This is Georgia, though. And when you start working on a positive article about how Georgia is a great sleeper national championship pick, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that four players get arrested for "multiple counts of theft by deception" -- allegedly cashing tuition checks twice -- in the middle of the writing process. Georgia just can't escape bad news.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of good news to come.
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If Washington completed the biggest inadvertent coaching upgrade of the offseason when Steve Sarkisian left for USC and Chris Petersen came to the Huskies as head coach, then Georgia got the next biggest: Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who has presided over underperforming Bulldogs defenses, left to join Bobby Petrino's new staff at Louisville, opening the door for Georgia to swipe Florida State's Jeremy Pruitt, who oversaw a national championship defense in his one and only year as a coordinator and a Seminoles assistant.
Like Grantham, Pruitt has worked under Nick Saban, and while he has only one year of experience as a coordinator under his belt, he made it count, making him one of the most coveted coaches on the rise and a good bet for a head coaching job in the next few years. At Florida State, he inherited an extremely talented defense, sure, but also one that lost several key contributors. He maintained its championship-caliber output, with the Seminoles managing to slip only from first to second in yards per play allowed nationally and holding seven of 14 opponents under 10 points.
Like Florida State, Georgia's defense is flush with talent and potential, but under Grantham the Bulldogs were prone to lapses and occasionally looked lost, especially in the secondary, giving up 10 passing plays of 40 or more yards last year and 12 the year before, according to cfbstats.com. Georgia doesn't have the sure-thing stars that formed the core of what Pruitt inherited at Florida State, but the Bulldogs own a rising young core of potential impact players, most notably at linebacker, where sophomore Leonard Floyd and junior Jordan Jenkins could emerge as the nation's best pass-rushing duo, and where Ramik Wilson is already a first-team All-SEC performer and is joined by the steady Amarlo Herrera on the inside.
It helps that they have rising junior nose tackle Chris Mayes plugging the middle, giving Georgia a defensive front that doesn't necessarily resemble Florida State's, but may instead mimic Pruitt's previous stop: Alabama, which is what he'll likely try to emulate. Two years after sending Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree to the first round of the NFL draft, Georgia may have the best linebacking corps in college football.
The Georgia defense won't need to be perfect, given the rise of the offense as one of the most efficient and explosive units in the nation; it just needs to get back to a place where it can consistently make big plays of its own that get opposing offenses off schedule. The Bulldogs actually had one more sack in one less game last year, despite losing an All-America pass rusher in Jones, and getting big plays in the backfield from Floyd and Jenkins off the edge takes a lot of pressure off what's going to be a reshuffled defensive backfield. It also creates more opportunities for turnovers, an area in which Georgia fell from 17th in 2012 to 111th last year.
Forcing turnovers not only requires a disruptive front seven, but also defensive backs who are in position. Sure, some of those big plays the DBs allowed were of the fluke variety, of course, as we all remember the Miracle at Jordan-Hare that saw safety Josh Harvey-Clemons prevent Tray Matthews from knocking down Nick Marshall's fourth-down prayer, instead tipping it in stride to Ricardo Louis, who raced to the end zone to give Auburn a shocking win. But the secondary has been the biggest concern, and fortunately that's where Pruitt's expertise lies. Florida State owned the nation's best pass defense last year, and Pruitt coached Alabama's defensive backs previously in two national championship seasons before he left and the unit became a liability this past season without him. That's not to say he deserves all the credit for what happens, but he has been an integral part of BCS title-winning coaching staffs since Saban plucked him from Hoover High School, producing acclaimed unit after acclaimed unit.
The Bulldogs already jettisoned Harvey-Clemons, a starting safety, because of off-the-field issues, and now Matthews, a star of last year's recruiting class and a contributor as a true freshman, finds himself in hot water too as the most prominent of those arrests on the eve of spring practice, which began on Tuesday. But regardless of what happens, Pruitt has talent to find somewhere in the unit, starting with Damian Swann, a versatile senior coming off a disappointing season, along with cornerback Reggie Wilkerson, who was expected to play as a true freshman but tore his ACL in June, and J.J. Green, who filled in for Gurley and Marshall at running back last year but has moved to cornerback for the spring.
By no means is Georgia a lock to turn all of this into a championship team, but it won't take a miracle, only the emergence of a few steady players at defensive back, who can take advantage of the pressure generated by the front seven, and on the offensive line -- yes, along with Mason developing into a productive starting quarerback, which is not guaranteed. Everything else is in place, assuming the bad news stops.
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The pre-spring practice arrests are the sort of thing that create ample fodder for the "Mark Richt has lost control of ___" jokes, that provide easy comic material for Steve Spurrier, who famously quipped in 2012, "I sort of always liked playing them that second game because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended."
Sure enough, South Carolina meets Georgia in Week 3, the Bulldogs' second game of the season, on the road in Columbia in the SEC East's biggest game, after opening with another stiff test at home against Clemson. When a team opens the season with two of its toughest games of the season instead of Furman and UAB, we can learn a lot in a hurry, and those championship hopes could be finished by sunset on Sept. 13.
But the new playoff system also creates a built-in buffer zone for a team that does find itself falling short so often. With four slots instead of two, there's plenty of room for a second SEC team to impress the selection committee with a tough schedule and wedge itself into the playoff mix. Alabama and Auburn will be obvious favorites, but with the right breaks, Georgia has a good case for being right beside them.
Last year, with all the injury problems and all the bad luck, four of Georgia's five losses came by five points or less, and the other came without Gurley. That 8-5 record is misleading. Despite the loss of a quarterback who didn't get enough credit for keeping the team afloat in its close wins, a young team is about to become a veteran one, and an injured one a healthy one. And that's how close games can suddenly become convincing wins, and how a team that's always coming up short regains a foothold as a championship contender.
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