- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs
2013 record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC). Lost 24-19 to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
Key losses: QB Aaron Murray, TE Arthur Lynch, DL Garrison Smith, S Josh Harvey-Clemons, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins, OT Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, OG Dallas Lee, DL Jonathan Taylor.
Key returnees: RB Todd Gurley, LB Ramik Wilson, LB Amarlo Herrera, OLB Leonard Floyd, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OT John Theus, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Chris Conley, DE Ray Drew, C David Andrews, PK Marshall Morgan, WR Justin Scott-Wesley.
Breakout player: Floyd. The lanky outside linebacker led Georgia with 6.5 sacks in 2013 and added 9.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. He’ll benefit from having a full year in Georgia’s conditioning program and could become a star in his second season.
Most important game: Sept. 13 at South Carolina. Two of the favorites in the SEC East will meet early in the season in Columbia, where the Gamecocks haven’t lost since 2011. They’ve beaten Georgia in their last two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium, including a 35-7 thrashing in 2012. The margin for error is typically narrow within the division, so the winner of this one will be the early team in the East driver’s seat.
Biggest question mark: The secondary is easily Georgia’s biggest area of concern. The Bulldogs’ pass defense was spotty at best in 2013, and the offseason departures of three regulars has left plenty of personnel questions. Coach Mark Richt kicked two starting safeties -- Harvey-Clemons and Matthews -- off the team, and cornerback Wiggins transferred to Louisville, so there is plenty of playing time available. Swann’s presence is big at cornerback, and converted running back J.J. Green was impressive in the spring, but junior college transfer Fenteng and Parrish will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact in August.
Upset special: Oct. 11 at Missouri. This could be a tricky game that might not get as much attention as it deserves with matchups against Clemson, South Carolina, Florida and Auburn also on Georgia’s schedule. The defending SEC East champs lost a ton of firepower, so Mizzou seems likely to take a step backward. But it’s a long road trip that kicks off a stretch of more than a month when the Bulldogs won’t play at home once -- and it could easily become a loss if Georgia doesn’t have its act together.
Key stat: 36.7. The average score of a Georgia game was 36.7 to 29.0 in 2013. Even if what was an inexperienced defense improves this fall, the Bulldogs will still likely rely on their star-studded offense. They might need to keep scoring at that prolific clip, which is somewhat uncertain with three longtime starting offensive linemen to replace, to allow time for the defense and their new set of coaches to develop some continuity.
Team’s top Twitter follows: The Bulldogs have some good choices here. Seeing as how he’s never started a game, it might seem surprising that senior offensive lineman Watts Dantzler (@WattsDantzler) has 12,000 Twitter followers. But he’s a natural-born entertainer who has a nationwide following that grew substantially when he live tweeted a harrowing spring break trip back to Athens on a bus. Another good pick is tight ends coach John Lilly (@JohnLillyUGA), who is a much more creative on Twitter than the typical coach. Lastly, Conley (@_Flight_31) regularly updates his 27,400 followers on his latest film exploits; he produced and starred in a well-received “Star Wars” tribute film over the summer and has started work on a new movie in recent weeks.
ESPN Stats & Info: 9.06 wins
Bovada over-under: 9.5 wins
Our take: Georgia was better than an eight-win team last season, but the Bulldogs were absolutely decimated by injuries to key players like Mitchell, Gurley, Scott-Wesley, tailback Keith Marshall and eventually Murray. If new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can get things straight on his side of the ball, the ceiling is extremely high for this team. The offense has an impressive array of talent surrounding senior quarterback Hutson Mason and should be difficult to contain. If the Bulldogs open with a win against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, this could easily become a 10-2 or 9-3 season where Georgia is once again in the thick of the East race.