Georgia season preview

Although Georgia must replace a big group of defensive standouts -- including first-round NFL picks Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree -- the Bulldogs still enter the season as a favorite to win the SEC East for the third straight season.


Coach: Mark Richt (118-40 career, all at UGA)

2012 record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)

Key losses: OLB Jarvis Jones, ILB Alec Ogletree, N John Jenkins, S Bacarri Rambo, S Shawn Williams, WR Tavarres King, CB Sanders Commings

Key returnees: QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, WR Malcolm Mitchell, CB Damian Swann, DE Garrison Smith, OLB Jordan Jenkins, WR Michael Bennett, TE Arthur Lynch

Newcomer to watch: True freshman free safety Tray Matthews is the obvious pick here, having arrived in January and claiming a starting role during spring practice. But Matthews is one of a large group of newcomers who will make an impact -- particularly on the Bulldogs’ rebuilding defense. Newcomers are sure to play early in the secondary and at linebacker, but the most new faces might be up front, where Toby Johnson, John Atkins, Chris Mayes and possibly Leonard Floyd are all among the expected contributors.

Biggest games in 2013: Florida is always a big midseason game, but the first month of the season is the make-or-break period for Georgia. The Bulldogs open with a high-profile nonconference matchup at Clemson, host South Carolina -- which owns a three-game winning streak against Georgia -- in Week 2 and close out September with a home game against LSU. That tough slate could easily derail Georgia’s season immediately, but if Georgia makes it to October with a 3-1 or 4-0 record, the Bulldogs might rank among the top contenders for a spot in the BCS championship game.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: With 12 key defensive players gone from last season, Georgia has holes to fill at every defensive position. Todd Grantham’s reconstructed unit is extremely talented, but can it function adequately during the difficult first month of the season? The defense had a good spring and has been solid thus far this preseason, so the group is gaining confidence. If it can be competent early, Murray, Gurley and the Bulldogs’ high-scoring offense should be able to do the rest.

Forecast: Try as they might to change the subject, last season’s near-miss against Alabama in the SEC championship game -- with a spot in the BCS title game at stake -- remains a regular source of conversation between fans/media and the Bulldogs.

Richt and his coaching staff have made the consistent point that last season is over and looking backward can easily breed complacency. The team seemed to take that message to heart, as Murray reported that attendance at summer workouts and passing sessions was the best it has been in his five-year career. Whether that workmanlike attitude will translate to improved consistency early in the season is the factor that might define the season. Georgia hasn’t reached the season’s midway point without a loss since 2005, the last time the Bulldogs won the SEC title, and facing Clemson, South Carolina and LSU early makes ending that trend an enormous challenge.

The good news for Georgia is that it has nearly everyone back from the highest-scoring offense in school history, with Murray returning for his fourth season as the starter, Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the backfield and all five starters on the offensive line. And, yes, the defense has holes to fill, but it’s stocked with breakout candidates like Jordan Jenkins, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, Matthews and a number of defensive linemen.

We’ll know almost immediately whether this is a team that can actually contend for the conference title -- and perhaps its bigger goals. Its potential is enormous, particularly if it gets off to a fast start.