The 2013 season didn't exactly go according to plan for head coach Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs.
Injuries to key players—including running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett—threw the team for a loop, and the Bulldogs finished with an 8-5 record and a third-place spot in the SEC East standings.
With quarterback Aaron Murray gone due to graduation, you'd think the Bulldogs might be set up for a rebuilding year.
You'd be wrong.
The reason is Gurley, who sat out three games in the middle of the season with an ankle injury and fought through that injury for the final two months of the season. Despite being limited by injury, Gurley managed to rush for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns.
According to Anthony Dasher of UGASports.com, Gurley is still bothered by that ankle injury and will be limited this spring:
Richt says Todd Gurley continues to not be full speed due to his ankle injury from last year and his spring schedule will be modified— Anthony Dasher (@AnthonyDasher1) March 5, 2014
It's never good to have your superstar on the shelf, but it's certainly smart for head coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to be cautious with Gurley this spring.
Gurley is a known commodity at this point, and the last thing Georgia needs is that ankle injury flaring up during the regular season.
The 6'1", 232-pound Gurley is a bruiser between the tackles with the speed of a track star. Whether it's former quarterback Aaron Murray taking the snaps or rising senior and first-year starter Hutson Mason under center, Bobo's offense is predicated on establishing the run. Georgia establishes the run with one of the best backs in the country.
He's the key that starts the engine for the Bulldogs offense, especially in a season in which playmakers at skill positions are all around him. Mitchell, Bennett, Scott-Wesley and Chris Conley will all be back at wide receiver this fall, along with backup running back Keith Marshall and incoming freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
Don't focus on the quarterback. Mason is a veteran who knows the system and has weapons all around him.
Besides, four of the last five BCS title-winning quarterbacks have been first-year starters. The only returning starter to take home the crystal football was Alabama's AJ McCarron, and he did so one year after winning it as a first-year starter. On top of that, seven of the last 10 starting quarterbacks in the BCS National Championship Game have been first-year starters.
Will Georgia win the SEC East in 2014?
Georgia can reach that level in 2014 if Gurley stays healthy.
He's a full-fledged superstar in a system that relies heavily on him performing at an elite level.
The Bulldogs play in a division that is littered with even more uncertainty than what exists in Athens. Getting by Clemson and South Carolina in the first two games of the season—with extra time to prepare for both border rivals—could launch Georgia to a special season.
Yes, even with that defense. Let's be honest—losing Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator is addition by subtraction. And Richt hiring Jeremy Pruitt, who is a coach and a teacher, might be the top coaching hire of the offseason.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.