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NCAA Football Preview - Georgia Bulldogs

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Updated: 8/18 10:53 am

The Bulldogs stumbled out of the gate with an opening night loss at rival Clemson, 38-35, but turned things around in a hurry with four straight wins, most notably downing South Carolina on Sept. 7 (41-30) and LSU on Sept. 28 (44-41).

The team's hopes for a return to the SEC Championship Game were dashed in mid- October with back-to-back losses to Missouri (41-26) and Vanderbilt (31-27). It suffered one more setback before the regular season was out, falling to eventual conference champion Auburn on Nov. 16 (43-38) on a miraculous fourth- down Hail Mary conversion by the Tigers late in the game.

Although Georgia fell short of its lofty goals, it was still good enough to qualify for a bowl game for the 17th straight year, although it was bested by Nebraska in the Gator Bowl, 24-19.

Mark Richt will return for his 14th season as head coach. As one of the most well-established and respected coaches in the nation, Richt has piled up an outstanding 126-45 record at Georgia with eight bowl wins.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Even though the offense suffered through a myriad of injuries last season, it was still one of the best unit's in the SEC both in terms of scoring (36.7 ppg) and yardage (484. ypg), but now it'll have to fill the gaping void left by its star quarterback.

Aaron Murray, now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, finished his college career as the SEC's all-time leader in completions (921), passing yards (13,166) and passing touchdowns (121), so replacing that production will be nearly impossible. However, Hutson Mason will do his best. The senior spent three seasons learning under Murray and was solid late last year after Murray went down with a knee injury, completing 60.9 percent of his passes for 968 yards, five touchdowns and three picks in five games.

"I don't think there will be a dropoff with Hutson," wide receiver Chris Conley said. "Hutson is a big guy who anticipates where the ball needs to go and he'll throw before a receiver is open. He has a lot of zip on his passes and he has a lot of touch."

Running back Todd Gurley missed three games last year with an ankle injury, but when healthy, he established himself as one of the nation's elite playmakers out of the backfield with 989 rushing yards, 441 receiving yards and 16 scores. J.J. Green (384 yards, three TDs) earned valuable reps last year and will be a nice complement to Gurley.

Mason will have plenty of experienced receivers to rely on. Conley (45 receptions, 651 yards, four TDs) and Michael Bennett (41 receptions, 538 yards, four TDs) were last season's leading pass-catchers, and Justin Scott- Wesley as a valuable fill-in for the numerous injured players and showed big- play ability with 311 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 grabs.

The squad will need to overcome the loss of most of its offensive line, with only tackle John Theus and center David Andrews returning.

DEFENSE: Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they were let down by an underachieving defense which ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in points (29.0 ppg) and yards (375.5 ypg) allowed. To combat this problem, the team brought aboard Jeremy Pruitt as the new defensive coordinator. In the same role with Florida State in 2013, Pruitt led the national championship winning Seminoles to the country's top-ranked scoring defense (12.1 ppg).

Pruitt will have a number of established pieces to work with, as the unit retains eight starters. All four starting linebackers return to the 3-4 scheme. Ramik Wilson (133 tackles, 11.0 TFL) and Amarlo Herrera (112 tackles, INT) are tackling machines on the inside, while Leonard Floyd (9.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks) and Jordan Jenkins (12.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks) are strong edge rushers.

Ray Drew (8.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks) and Sterling Bailey (34 tackles) bring experience along the front line, while Damian Swann (57 tackles) Corey Moore (35 tackles, INT) and Shaq Wiggins (two INTs) are valuable pieces in the secondary.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Marshall Morgan was one of the nation's best kickers as a sophomore, making good on 22-of-24 field goal attempts. He has plenty of leg too, making 7-of-8 from beyond 40 yards with a long of 56.

Junior punter Collin Barber split his kicking duties last season, averaging 44.1 yards per boot, with nine of his 29 punts landing inside the 20-yard line.

A committee of return men ran back kicks to modest results last season. Expect a rotating bunch again this season, with J.J. Green, Sheldon Dawson, Reggie Davis, Damian Swann and others getting opportunities.

OUTLOOK: Georgia was one of the most injury-riddled teams in the nation last season, which was the primary reason it wasn't quite a national-championship caliber squad, but it still had enough positives to put together a respectable eight-win campaign. Even without Murray in 2014, the Bulldogs have a cupboard full of highly-talented playmakers, leaving plenty of hope for a serious title run.

UGA was picked to finish second in the SEC East behind South Carolina in the preseason media poll, which didn't sit well with the head coach.

"Obviously, what's important is what happens at the end of the year," Richt said. "I'm not happy to be named number two. I'm not going to start cheering that we're number two, (but) I think in the end it's going to be Georgia."

The squad will have to open up with Clemson once again, but this time it will have the homefield advantage. Then it's right into a typically-difficult SEC slate of games at includes contests at South Carolina and Missouri, at home versus reigning champs Auburn and on a neutral field versus Florida.

The first two games of the season against Clemson and South Carolina will dictate a lot of what's to come for Georgia. If it can come out firing at 2-0, it'll establish itself as a legitimate contender. If not, a similar fate as last season could be in the cards.

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