The 2013 season didn't exactly go according to plan for the Georgia Bulldogs.
A rash of injuries and a remarkably inept defense prevented head coach Mark Richt from claiming his third consecutive SEC East title.
However, Georgia was still very much in the race to claim division supremacy up until a Nick Marshall pass was deflected into the waiting arms of Ricardo Louis, and Auburn toppled Georgia 43-38 on Nov. 16.
Could the Bulldogs get back to the top of the SEC East in 2014?
Absolutely. In fact, they could go much farther than that and should be considered true national title contenders.
Loads of Offensive Weapons
No, quarterback Aaron Murray won't be taking the snaps in Athens for the first time since 2009. No, it's not as big of a deal as you think.
Sure, losing the SEC's all-time leader in passing yards (13,166) and passing touchdowns (121) isn't ideal, but redshirt senior Hutson Mason has seen plenty of time in the offense.
Besides, as I noted earlier this month, first-year starters have a track record of success on the game's biggest stages. Quarterback shouldn't be the focus, the weapons around the quarterback should be.
The weapons around Mason are legit.
Running back Todd Gurley is one of the best—if not the best—running backs in the country. When healthy, running mate Keith Marshall is incredibly dangerous in space and gives Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo plenty of options.
Outside, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley return to lead a wide receiving corps that could get Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley back from injuries this fall.
Up front, Kolton Houston and John Theus will likely occupy the two tackle spots. Senior center David Andrews has been around the block a time or two.
Georgia has the weapons to be an incredibly dangerous offense, even if Mason is only a "caretaker." If he becomes a difference-maker, consider that a bonus.
A Fresh Start Defensively
The biggest coaching move in the SEC this offseason took place in Athens, and it had nothing to do with new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
When new Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino hired defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia, the Bulldogs got better. It was addition by subtraction.
Grantham is a good coach, but he is lacking in the teaching department. That's exactly why Georgia's defense looked like it was doing aerobics prior to seemingly every snap last year. The players didn't know what the other players were doing or why they were being asked to do what they were being asked to do.
But Georgia didn't just get better with Grantham's departure, it upped the ante by going out and getting Pruitt—a noted coach and teacher fresh off a BCS National Championship.
On top of that, Pruitt has specific experience coaching defensive backs. That will help Georgia, which finished ninth in the SEC in pass defense in 2013 (227.4 yards allowed per game).
Georgia is getting nine starters back on defense, including the SEC's leading tackler from 2013 (Ramik Wilson), ultra-talented linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, and senior defensive end Ray Drew.
It's hard to imagine a scenario where Georgia's defense gets worse with that experience and better coaching, and there's a real possibility that it will get significantly better.
Schedule discussions shift a bit in the age of the College Football Playoff, because now there are two more spots for teams to battle for in the race for a national championship.
Will Georgia make the first College Football Playoff?
Georgia's schedule sets up for a title run.
Richt will get a good gauge of where his team stands early in September when it hosts Clemson and travels to South Carolina in Weeks 1 and 3, respectively. Tough competition, sure, but Georgia has extra time to prepare for both opponents.
The Bulldogs also have a bye week before the Florida game, Kentucky before Auburn, Vanderbilt—which should take a step back—before Missouri and Troy before Tennessee.
If that's not manageable, I'm not sure what is.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com.