What could have been with a fully-healthy, less-snakebitten Georgia Bulldog football team in 2013?
Weren't the Dawgs supposed at least to challenge for the national championship this year after being a measly five yards away from it in 2012? Wasn't that the only way to heal the heartache that has plagued Bulldog Nation since that fateful night in Atlanta just over a year ago? Well, Lady Luck left her sadly familiar calling card this season and all we're left to dream about is getting matched up with a quality opponent in a respectable lower-tier bowl on New Year's Day.
That said, I wholeheartedly believe that the trying 2013 campaign is a sign of much better things to come. I thought up a few encouraging factors that could enable the Dawgs to have a stellar 2014 season. Ever the realist, though, I also thought up a few damning factors from 2013 that could be cause for turbulence in 2014.
Let's crank up the optimism:
- This team has a ton of heart. The 2013 Dawgs have done nothing but fight since the moment Brent Musburger (for one reason or another) drooled over the buses driving around in circles at Clemson that balmy late-August evening. The Dawgs could have lost big to Auburn, but they made a game of it in the second half and lost only on the flukiest of fluke last-minute
miraclesdisasters. The Dawgs could have lost big to Georgia Tech, too, but they staged a comeback in the second half and won the game in overtime. These guys were hobbling, but hungry, no doubt about it. In terms of overall record, this team was a disappointment. In terms of sheer drive and willpower, this team was an inspiration. If this kind of spirit carries over to next season, expect good things from the 2014 Georgia Bulldogs.
- Hutson Mason will be a great QB in his only year as a starter. I doubt we'll see a player of Aaron Murray's grandeur for quite a while, but the Georgia offense is in very good hands with Hutson Mason under center next season. In the first half of the Tech game, Mason's long-awaited first start as Georgia's quarterback, the butterflies in his stomach were conspicuous, but we saw an entirely different player after halftime. The poise (and confidence) that #14 showed on that 4th-down pass to Michael Bennett in the fourth quarter was extraordinary. So much so, you could have put Mason in a #11 jersey, shrunk him down a few inches and nobody would have known any different. Murray's backup has had plenty of time to learn the system and get comfortable with the plethora of talented receivers around him since 2010, so don't expect too much of a dropoff at QB in 2014.
Malcolm Mitchell running his way into Dawg fans' hearts against Florida in 2012 via 2.bp.blogspot.com
- Mason's arsenal will be as stocked (and hopefully healthy) as ever. Malcolm Mitchell, still slightly ailing from injuries past, tore his ACL celebrating Georgia's first score in the Clemson game this season. He'll be back as a senior in 2014 and, God willing, will be fully recuperated. Mitchell will rejoin the sure-handed Michael Bennett and Chris Conley as senior leaders in the receiving corps. I look forward to seeing Reggie Davis continue to come into his own as the next deep threat for Hutson Mason (and later Brice Ramsey and/or Jacob Park) and we should also get a heavy dose of JUCO star Jonathon Rumph in 2014. Oh, and there's this Tramel Terry guy I keep hearing about. South Carolina's Mr. Football 2012 is supposed to be pretty good himself.
- The RB corps. Remember when RB was a position of relative weakness for Georgia? Remember when we were praying that Isaiah Crowell could play four quarters and burying our heads in our hands when Coach Mike Bobo sent Carlton Thomas up the middle for a gain or loss of a yard when we needed six or seven? Well, those troubles are miles away. Georgia has the luxury of having Todd Gurley on the roster. When healthy Gurley is the best RB in America and he should continue his game-changing ways in 2014. Not to be overshadowed will be fellow North Carolinian Keith Marshall, Gurley's backfield mate and close friend, who will be returning to the fold after suffering a season-ending knee injury on that cheap rug in Knoxville. Also expect J.J. Green and cult hero Brendan Douglas to continue to develop behind these future NFL tailbacks. Georgia also has an amazingly talented pair of backs coming to town in five-stars Nick Chubb out of Cedartown and Sony Michel out of Plantation, Fla. All in all, things are looking great in the backfield for 2014.
- The defensive line was very good in 2013 and it will only get better. Losing Garrison Smith will be a huge blow, but Coach Chris Wilson has recruited well for this unit and in 2014 I fully expect his line to continue to build on what they accomplished this past year. Under Coach Wilson's direction, Ray Drew and Sterling Bailey finally had those breakthrough seasons we all knew they were capable of having, Chris Mayes stepped right in as a first-time starter and came up big at times. You wouldn't be crazy to expect good things from Toby Johnson and John Atkins in their returns from an injury-plagued 2013, either. Like with the RB corps, there are some pretty darn good defensive big uglies coming to Athens, too, headlined by Kendall Baker from Atlanta and Lamont Gaillard out of Fayetteville, NC.
- Georgia might have the most feared pass-rushers in the SEC in the LB corps. Dominant play from the aforementioned defensive line will continue to open things up for Georgia's linebacker corps, a unit replete with talent. I expect Coach Todd Grantham to continue his wizardry of the OLB position with Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. Those two will both continue to develop into even greater pass-rush threats than they already are. Scary thoughts for opposing offenses considering that Floyd finished the regular season with 6.5 sacks and Jenkins racked up 11 tackles for loss this past season. Continued development from both Floyd and Jenkins in 2014 could result in one, or both, of them reaching the kind of "game-changer" level at which Jarvis Jones was so apt at playing.
- One special aspect of special teams. The terms "special teams" and "atrocious" have gone together like peas and carrots for Georgia the past few seasons, but there was one area where we saw remarkable improvement in 2014: the kicking game. Marshall Morgan survived a rocky start to the season, missing the Clemson and South Carolina games due to a suspension stemming from a BUI (yes, you read that correctly) charge. Morgan learned his lesson and went on to post a 90% FG percentage this season. His last missed attempt was in the Tennessee game two months ago. A fully-focused and well-behaved Morgan will be simply automatic in 2014, maybe even able to surpass his own past successes.
Don't get too optimistic now! There are also a few question marks heading into the season:
Growing pains could lead to good things, but the jury is still out via onlineathens.com
- The secondary was an obvious weak point and was exploited early and often in 2013. The Achilles heel of the 2013 Georgia Bulldogs was the secondary, a banged-up and green unit that enabled Georgia Tech's triple-option offense to throw all over the field last weekend. One could easily pardon the defensive backs for a subpar 2013 campaign by pointing to the lack of experience and cohesion back there. After all, Georgia featured seven first-time starters in seven different arrangements. That's a valid point, but what if they don't get any better with time and more consistent assignments? For the record, I think they will, but that ominous thought is always a possibility.
- The offensive line had good games and impressive moments, but resembled a colander all too often this past season. The OL could continue its inconsistent, enigmatic (and largely unimpressive) ways in 2014. Georgia loses seniors Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee from the starting five for next season. While the OL played good games in 2013, Coach Will Friend's big uglies largely failed to meet expectations and struggled to retain any sense of consistency throughout the season. Even though the line's performance was less than perfect in 2013, losing three out of five starters is always hard to overcome. My hopes rest on Mark Beard, Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow and Xzavier Ward (and maybe an incoming freshman or two) to try to fill the void. We'll see how that goes.
- As per usual in the SEC (unless you're Alabama, of course) there's also the issue of a daunting and unforgiving schedule: we have to deal with Clemson in Game One; the Dawgs face a huge road test three weeks into the season against a South Carolina team which seemingly never loses at home these days; Missouri might just be for real; and Auburn will likely keep keep the Gus Bus rollin' apace. As we all know, it's nearly impossible to survive the gauntlet of an SEC schedule completely unscathed and the Dawgs will have their work cut out for them in 2014.
There are no guarantees for next season, but seven positives and only three negatives tell me that Georgia's fortunes could turn around in 2014. Will they? Only time will tell.
Till then, let's husk some corn (again) on New Year's Day, close out with a solid recruiting class in February and get the boys ready for glory in 2014! Go Dawgs!