When the season's inaugural Amway Coaches Poll was released Thursday afternoon, the Georgia Bulldogs found themselves ranked 12th. While there's great value in flying relatively under the radar, the Bulldogs are deserving of a Top-10 ranking.
Obviously, the 2013 campaign did not go according to plan for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. The goal was Pasadena for the BCS National Championship Game, but the achieved reality was Jacksonville for the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. Between the preseason hype and the disappointing season-ending loss to Nebraska, Georgia's offense was ravished by injuries, and a young defense's development was stunted.
But in college football years, that's ancient history. Much more relevant at this time is Georgia's returning personnel and generally favorable schedule, which merit a Top-10 preseason ranking.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Dawgs return as many playmakers as any team in the country. Todd Gurley is a Heisman candidate, and his backfield mate, Keith Marshall, is healthy from a torn ACL. They'll be joined by two of the best freshman running backs in the country in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb (ranked third and sixth, respectively, at their position by the 247Sports composite) and Brendan Douglas, who ran for 345 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013.
|Notable Returning Offensive Stars|
|Todd Gurley||Running Back||Junior|
|Keith Marshall||Running Back||Junior|
|Chris Conley||Wide Receiver||Senior|
|Malcolm Mitchell||Wide Receiver||Junior|
|Michael Bennett||Wide Receiver||Senior|
Quarterback Hutson Mason, a fifth-year senior, will be a full-time starter for the first time of his career, but as Richt pointed out a few weeks ago at SEC media days (per ASAP Sports), this isn't a new offense for Mason:
The blessing for us is Hutson Mason being in the program going into his fifth season, a guy that got to watch Aaron's work ethic, to see how he ran the off‑season program, how he would organize pass skeleton and those types of things. Just the fact that Hutson has the respect of his teammates, the confidence of his teammates and coaches, to take on that leadership role.
And those teammates will prove invaluable in offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's balanced attack. Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley will return from knee injuries of their own to aid a passing attack that returns its two leading receivers from a year ago (Chris Conley and Michael Bennett).
This offense will run the ball effectively and spread the ball around in the passing game. It will move the chains and score points in a manner that now typifies Georgia football.
Defensively, the on-field product has to be better under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs' season may have come off the tracks when the offense was battered by injuries in 2013, but four of Georgia's five losses came as opponents scored more than 30 points.
There will be a transition time and learning curve as Pruitt replaces Todd Grantham, but in some ways, that's exactly what the defense needed. As senior cornerback Damian Swann pointed out to Seth Emerson and Athlon Sports, "A lot of guys probably needed a fresh start."
For some of those guys (like Josh Harvey-Clemons, Tray Matthews, Shaq Wiggins and Jonathan Taylor), that fresh start will come with another program. For others, like Swann and a front seven that is largely still intact, that new beginning comes with Pruitt, who has had a hand in crafting each of the past three national champions.
All though there's still work to be done, Georgia returns plenty of experience in the secondary thanks to players like Swann and safeties Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger, who have all played significant snaps.
The defensive line and linebackers will be led by the SEC's leading tacklers in 2013 (Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera) and a number of capable pass-rushers, including Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Ray Drew.
On both sides of the ball, this Georgia team possesses too much talent and experience to be taken lightly.
Combine that talent and experience with a generally favorable schedule, and this team is undoubtedly deserving of a Top-10 ranking.
Georgia's nonconference slate features in-state rival Georgia Tech and an opener against Clemson, but the Yellow Jackets have come up short against Georgia in each of the past five seasons, and home field and revenge should factor into the Dawgs' bout with the Tigers.
Within conference play, Georgia dodges Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss from the West, gets Arkansas as a nonrecurring cross-divisional game and will finally get Auburn in the confines of Sanford Stadium.
An early season trip to Columbia, South Carolina, is by far the the Dawgs' most challenging trip. The Bulldogs' other road games come against a rebuilding Missouri team, Arkansas and lowly Kentucky.
|Georgia's Opponents Ranked in Preseason by Coaches Poll|
|Opponent||Ranking||Date of Game||Location|
|South Carolina||9||Sept. 13||Road|
Admittedly, preseason polls are based too much on conjecture to be taken as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Last year, Auburn was not ranked heading into the season by the coaches, and the Tigers rallied to an SEC championship and a trip to Pasadena.
That being said, Thursday's poll releasing doesn't give Georgia's talent and schedule its due.
Georgia's 2014 schedule features only two opponents—South Carolina (No. 9) and Auburn (No. 5)—ranked higher than the Bulldogs.
The matchup with the Gamecocks will be tough on the road, particularly as a new quarterback continues to settle in and a defense begins to mold. But it's a winnable game, as South Carolina looks to replace one of the most productive quarterbacks in its program's history (Connor Shaw) and the best defensive player in college football (Jadeveon Clowney).
As for Auburn, Georgia gave the Tigers all they wanted on the road in 2013. It's not unrealistic to think Georgia could turn a heartbreaking defeat into a victory at home in 2014.
But even if Georgia were to drop games to South Carolina and Auburn, a 10-2 record would likely merit a Top-10 finish. And while other teams—particularly Clemson and Florida—will push the Dawgs, Georgia should be favored in those battles.
If the Bulldogs handle things on the field, they'll earn respect in the polls.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.