Expectations are high for the Georgia Bulldogs as we enter the 2013 college football season. The Bulldogs are returning a tremendous amount of talent to an offense that had incredible success last season and the defense is young but has a great deal of potential.
While Mark Richt and his staff will need contributions from everyone on the team, there are a few players that I think are in for a huge season between the hedges.
Here are a few Dawgs you should keep an eye on and my predictions for the team's most significant impact players.
Offensive MVP: Todd Gurley
UGA has the best running back in college football in Todd Gurley. The 6'1", 232-pound sophomore burst onto the scene last season as a freshman with an incredible year. He was one of the most consistent backs in America with nine 100-yard performances and he dominated teams in the second half of games with his incredible power and speed.
Mike Bobo has an unbelievable amount of offensive weapons next season, but the entire thing starts with Gurley. He should be able to stay fresh with Keith Marshall as an excellent back-up and the Dawgs will be able to count on Gurley to pick up tough yards against the physical defenses they'll face.
Defensive MVP: Amarlo Herrera
People are making a big deal over Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree moving on to the NFL but UGA has two great replacements ready to go in Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera. Jenkins is the athletic outside linebacker and pass rusher who's already drawing comparisons to Jones, but I think Herrera is the defender who ends up being the MVP of the Dawgs defense next season. Todd Grantham will count on him to step up as one of the unit's experienced leaders who is fundamentally sound.
He finished last season with 70 tackles and I expect him to be the team's leading tackler this year. Look for Herrera to have a season similar to what Tony Taylor had in 2007 at Georgia.
Offensive X-Factor: Jay Rome
For a team with so many great players on offense, it's difficult to pick one as the primary x-factor. The reality is that Georgia's offensive x-factor could change on a weekly basis depending on what the opposing defense wants to try to take away. But since I'm choosing to narrow it down to one player, I'll go with Jay Rome.
Rome will likely enter the season as the team's second tight end behind Arthur Lynch but he showed glimpses of his potential last season, including in the first half of the SEC Championship game against Alabama. At 6'6", 254-pounds, Rome is an athletic target with good hands who is nearly impossible to defend in coverage. He's too fast for most linebackers and too big for cornerbacks or safeties.
Defensive X-Factor: Ray Drew
Ray Drew arrived at UGA as a member of the highly touted Dream Team recruiting class in 2011. Drew was a 5-star defensive end recruit who was expected to be a dominant force in Todd Grantham's 3-4 attacking scheme. Thus far, it hasn't worked out as everyone expected. Drew has received a fair amount of playing time but has yet to make a significant impact and this is the season when he needs to step up and become more productive. If he can play up to the potential he showed coming out of high school, it will give the young defense a huge lift.
Rookie of the Year: Tray Matthews
My biggest concern with Tray Matthews is that he'll be so aggressive that he winds up hurting himself. Matthews is expected to start at one of the safety positions for the Dawgs and he already has a reputation for being a ferocious hitter, which has UGA fans reminiscing back to baptismal hits by guys like Thomas Davis, Sean Jones and Greg Blue.
Starting as a true freshman in the defensive backfield that has to face Tajh Boyd on the road in the opening game won't be easy, but Matthews sounds like a player who is up for the challenge.