SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #10 Georgia
The college football season is still weeks away, but don't be sad; the SQ staff will help you get through the cold CFB winter by providing you with everything you need to know about the nation’s top teams. As part of this care package, we're previewing the top-25 teams as voted on by SQ writers, and today we’re covering #10, Georgia.
Team: Georgia Bulldogs
SQ Ranking: #10
2014 Record: 10-3
Head Coach: Mark Richt (14th season)
Key Arrivals: DT Trenton Thompson, LB Jake Ganus, LB Natrez Patrick, WR Terry Godwin, LB Roquan Smith, DE Jonathan Ledbetter, DB Kirby Choates, DB Rashad Roundtree, OC Brian Schottenheimer
Key Departures: RB Todd Gurley, WR Chris Conley, C David Andrews, LB Amarlo Herrera, LB Ramik Wilson, DB Damian Swann, WR Michael Bennett, QB Hutson Mason, OC Mike Bobo, OL Coach Will Friend
Previewing the Georgia offense: It remains to be seen how the Bulldogs' offense will look under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Under their old coordinator, Mike Bobo, the offense developed into an explosive, record-breaking offense that was one of the best in the SEC. Schottenheimer will certainly look to add his own wrinkles, but Mark Richt, the man who implemented the offense at Georgia, will likely keep it fairly similar to the one seen under Bobo.
Luckily for the Bulldogs, it shouldn't matter who is calling the plays, as long as there is a consistent dose of No. 27. Nick Chubb burst onto the scene as a true freshman last year, running for over 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns in really only eight games as a starter. His presence in Georgia's backfield takes the pressure off of their other offensive players. But Chubb isn't the only UGA running back that opposing defenses should fear. Keith Marshall appears to finally be healthy after missing the past two season with knee injuries. A healthy Marshall, who ran for nearly 800 yards and 8 scores as a freshman, provides an excellent change of pace, and sophomore Sony Michel also has the ability to become a true threat to opposing defenses.
In addition to the loaded running back unit, Georgia returns four of its five offensive lineman from last season. Gone is their stellar center, David Andrews, but guard Brandon Kublanow is sliding over to take his place. The wide receivers aren't a known commodity in Athens, but Malcolm Mitchell is a play-maker if he can remain healthy. 5-star recruit Terry Godwin is donning the red and black this season and figures to make an impact at some point. Tight end Jeb Blazevich is expected to take another step forward after a gorgeous freshman campaign, in which he averaged nearly 15 yards per catch, and he could become the Bulldogs' second receiving weapon behind Mitchell.
The biggest question in Athens entering the season is: who will be handing the ball off to Nick Chubb or delivering it to the wide receivers? Currently there are three candidates locked in a tight battle for the starting quarterback job. Sophomore Brice Ramsey was the favorite entering the spring, but junior Faton Bauta has presumably closed the gap. Over the summer, the coaching staff decided to add UVA transfer Greyson Lambert to the fray, and the three remain in close competition. Richt has forbidden his players from discussing the ongoing quarterback situation and has essentially shut-out the media from any quarterback-related news. He has also discussed the possibility of playing all of his quarterbacks in week one against Louisiana-Monroe to see them in a game scenario, so fans may have to wait before learning who their starter will be at quarterback.
Previewing the Georgia defense: One of the biggest reasons for the optimism surrounding the Bulldogs this season, in Athens, is their defense. In his first year as defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt transformed Georgia's defense into the No. 17 unit in terms of total defense, up from No. 45 in 2013. The largest transition in the Bulldogs' defense came in the secondary. In 2013, UGA ranked No. 59 in passing defense. Under Pruitt, the Bulldogs improved to No. 5 in the nation and only figure to improve this season as most of the starters return.
Most of the departures from last year's defense came from along the front seven, the defensive line hit hardest. Mike Thornton and Ray Drew have graduated from the defensive line, but 5-star Trenton Thompson could possibly start right away for Georgia and lessen the impact of the departures. Thompson isn't a massive body at the defensive tackle position, but he utilizes his quickness in an impressive manner. He may even see some time at defensive end throughout the season.
Also gone from Georgia's defense are inside linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera. The All-SEC linebackers were everywhere for the Bulldogs, netting over 100 tackles apiece in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Their presence will be missed, but inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is excited about the unit he has in Athens and thinks that they could even be better this season. That unit includes emerging backup Tim Kimbrough, Reggie Carter, talented freshman Natrez Patrick, and Leonard Floyd.
Floyd is a name that could be known nation-wide before the season is over. In his first two seasons in Athens, Floyd has netted 12.5 sacks for the Bulldogs, as well as 18 tackles for loss. He is an incredibly versatile athlete who can play with his hand on the ground just as well as he can from a stand-up position. What makes the Georgia defense so lethal, however, is that he's not the only one who possesses such versatility. As a freshman last season, Lorenzo Carter lined up all over the field for the Bulldogs, and the results were extremely positive: 4.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. Carter put up numbers with limited playing time, similar to the way Floyd performed his freshman season. With those two lining up at numerous positions for coach Pruitt, Georgia's defense could be scary.
The best defensive unit heading into the 2015 season figures to be the secondary. It's truly a testament to the job that Pruitt has done in Athens because, at this point last season, the secondary was considered the biggest liability on the entire team. Damian Swann's presence will be missed, as he finally fulfilled his potential for UGA and is currently in the NFL. Swann did a little bit of everything last season, gaining four interceptions, 65 tackles, two sacks, and a 99-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Georgia Tech. His shoes will likely be filled by sophomore Malcolm Parrish, who showed much promise during his freshman season. The leader in the secondary, now that Swann is gone, is sophomore safety Dominik Sanders. As a freshman, Sanders showed an ability to get his hands on the football, hauling in three interceptions and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Georgia's defense did lose some of its key players from recent seasons, but the presence of Pruitt and the ability shown by several of the players still donning those silver britches means that this could be one of the nation's top defenses in 2015.
Three Key Games:
Georgia vs. Alabama, October 3 - Georgia's game against South Carolina during the third week of the season will be a test for the Bulldogs—Steve Spurrier's team always gives UGA fits—but their match-up against the Crimson Tide will be their first huge game of the season. Both teams could potentially enter the game undefeated and ranked near the top of the AP Poll. This will be the first meeting between Georgia and Alabama since the 2012 SEC Championship Game, wh en the Bulldogs were about four yards shy of upsetting the eventual national champions. Expect a lot of energy between the hedges when these two SEC contenders square off.
Georgia at Tennessee, October 10 - This could be a trap game for the Bulldogs after their meeting with the Crimson Tide, and the Volunteers are a much improved squad. In fact, this game could very well decide the SEC East, when all is said and done. Georgia beat Tennessee by three points in Athens last season, but the Vols have become a much more experienced, legitimately talented team under Butch Jones. Going into Knoxville is never an easy task, and it looks like Tennessee is no longer among the bottom-dwellers in the division. This could be the hardest game Georgia has, given the opponent, location, and spot on the schedule.
Georgia vs. Auburn, November 15 - No team from the SEC East has a harder cross-conference schedule than Georgia. Playing Alabama and Auburn, considered the top two teams in the west, is not an enviable task, but if the Bulldogs expect to be national contenders, it's a challenge they'll rise to meet. The atmosphere when these two teams met in Athens last season was incredible. The air was electric, the energy, palpable, and Georgia played their most complete game of the season. Auburn figures to be an improved team this season, and this game should be one of the year's best.
Bonus Fourth Key Game:
Georgia vs. Florida, November 1 - It's the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party; it's always a big one.
Final Analysis: It seems that every year the Bulldogs enter the season as a contender on the national stage. What has hurt Georgia over the years is their inability to avoid a complete no-show in one game. Last season, it was their game against Florida, in which the Bulldogs were heavily-favored and then laid an egg in a 38-20 loss. The loss was their second of the season, and doomed their title hopes.
This season, Georgia has the look of a team who could win the SEC and make the playoffs, provided they get anything out of their quarterback. Nick Chubb is a legitimate Heisman candidate, and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel are essentially 1b and 1c. UGA's backfield is possibly the best in the nation and—behind the Bulldogs' offensive line—should be able to impose its will on any defense.
Defensively, Pruitt's squad should continue to improve and might keep Georgia in the game that it has managed to lose every other year. A strong running game and a good defense are the perfect recipe to avoid laying a goose egg.
Tennessee is the one opponent who could be an x-factor in determining Georgia's season. It is likely that UGA trips up against either Auburn or Alabama, but it should be able to earn one win out of those two. The Bulldog's ability to avoid that trip-up game will determine their success this season, but the strong ground game and stout defense should help them do it. An 11-1 or 10-2 finish seems likely for UGA; this team should play in the SEC Championhip Game with a shot at the College Football Playoff.