Like the movie Groundhog Day, another year, another hope for UGA fans that this could indeed be The Year. While the “Disney Dawgs” are always optimistic, the 2014-15 season could finally be the year Mark Richt brings a ship to back to Athens.
It’s the Schedule, Stupid!
For seven of the last eight years, the road to the National Championship has gone through the SEC title game. With the myriad teams that would be considered championship contenders, getting to The SEC Championship Game can often come down to who you play AND where you play them. UGA’s schedule, on paper, is favorable compared to last year’s. This season’s opener against “Clemmy” won’t be played in Clemson, but Between the Hedges– where the Dawgs enjoy one of the best home venues in football. Last year at home the Dawgs defeated a loaded LSU team that could put up points with the best of them. But they also had to travel and play an Auburn team that made a deal with the Devil in Jordan Hare. However (by far) the most important scheduling factor is that this year the Dawgs avoid the Big Two from the SEC West (LSU & Alabama) and face Auburn at home, where Auburn has struggled mightily in recent years. And while the Dawgs do go to South Carolina, this year’s schedule could hardly be called daunting by typical SEC standards and as we have seen, a favorable schedule is half the battle.
Death, taxes, and Coach Richt offenses
Seemingly every year Richt features a strong offense. This year figures to be no different. While you can’t underestimate the contribution of Aaron Murray, UGA brings back 5th year senior Hutson Mason (whom many a fringe fan argued should have been starting over Murray for years). Now fans shouldn’t expect Mason to duplicate Murray’s records but they shouldn’t expect much of a drop off. Mason set his own passing records at Lassiter High in suburban Atlanta. And for a few years now we have heard from coaches and players that Mason was good enough to man the QB position.
UGA returns a WR group that many have rated the best in the SEC if not the country. The WR unit stands to be as good as last year’s and likely better with the return of Malcolm Mitchell who was lost on the first play of offense in the first game last season. Mitchell is UGA’s best WR and will provide a big boost to an already loaded unit.
UGA also brings back the best RB in the country in Todd Gurley– that should be enough to instill fear in the hearts of opponents. Further, the UGA backfield will feature three 5-star talents (stud Keith Marshall returns with additions Nick Chubb and Sony Michel). Of the Big 4 RBs, Todd Gurley was the lowest rated RB of the bunch. Safe to say, RB will be a strength in Athens this year. With a QB that has been in the system for years and WR/RB units that will challenge for best in the country, it’s expected that the UGA offense will continue to stress scoreboard circuits.
The Pruitt Factor
This year fans will be introduced to new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt– the man that has coached the last two national championship defenses. This man is so single-mindedly devoted to football he’s never even heard of the wonders of asparagus:
Georgia’s Ex-defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, was known to have one of the most complex defenses in football. Former UGA players remarked that their NFL playbooks were smaller than Grantham’s. This complexity often manifested itself during play, as defensive backs waved their hands in wild confusion, as if they’d caught the holy ghost while opposing wide receivers flew by them. A biblical reference is appropriate since Bulldog fans often prayed when the defense was out on the field.
Enter Coach Jeremy Pruitt. Having a background in high school football, CJP is known for his emphasis on fundamentals and execution. Coach Pruitt is a proven commodity that will do wonders with UGA’s talented defense. This is a team that arguably has the best front seven in football coming back. Repeated 3rd and long failures (of which there were MANY) point to mental breakdowns in the secondary. Coaches like Todd Grantham believe football should be taught at a doctorate level; Coach Pruitt believes football is a simple game of who executes better. If the players can’t execute a play then that play will not be called. Don’t count on The Pruitt Factor making the Dawgs a dominant defense in year one. But do count on a vastly improved defense that will make offenses work. This new defense, combined with an offense that will score points should be enough to put the Dawgs in championship contention.
The Law of Averages
Last year, after a promising start, UGA seemingly suffered every possible injury a football team can. Just on the offensive side of the ball, UGA lost for the season: Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell, and Justin Scott-Wesley. QB Aaron Murray and WRs Chris Conley and Michael Bennett all missed multiple games. Even the seemingly unstoppable Todd Gurley missed playing time equivalent to five full games. The 2013-14 Dawgs were a team with a loaded offense and pitiful defense. When they won they were outscoring teams with a myriad of offensive weapons. When those weapons were missing due to injury, UGA was left with an offensive side that was talented but inexperienced. As a result UGA became a team with a decent offense and still pitiful defense. This dynamic (or lack thereof) contributed to many of UGA’s losses.
Football is a funny game. Success often hinges on the lucky bounce of a ball. UGA is unlikely to suffer the injuries they suffered last year and at the very least the offense can’t expect to suffer the same loss of talent it did in 2013. A simple regression to the mean would leave many more weapons at offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s disposal than were available last year.
Playoffs! You Talking About Playoffs!?
There is no other team in the country that will benefit from a playoff format more than UGA. Coach Richt’s teams have been characterized by slow starts to the season (usually an early loss) that build into late season hot streaks. (Think 2011, when the Dawgs dropped the first two games before ripping off ten straight wins.) This format is usually not conducive for placing a team in a single national championship game, but with three top 5 finishes (along with five top 7 finishes) Richt’s teams would have been well positioned to be one of the four seeded teams had a playoff system been in place. Richt’s pattern of finishes, coupled with the strength of the SEC give UGA a good shot of making the playoffs. Once you are in the playoffs you have as good a shot of winning as the other three teams.
Richt the Momma Dawg
When a well known Atlanta radio host asked Coach Richt about Aaron Murray’s lack of ability to win big games, I saw a fire in Richt I’d never seen before. You could see the anger in his eyes that an adult would insinuate that one of his best players was a choker (as if the guy setting conference records was the problem…). From that moment, I sensed a change in Richt. He seemed less satisfied and more driven. He seems determined to not have to answer any questions about his players not winning the big one. For the first time, Richt openly talks about his desire to win a championship. Richt’s motivation has always been questioned by a certain set of fans. While this may be overblown, a motivated Richt would put UGA in the best possible position to win a National Championship.