Georgia was one play away from a national championship berth in 2012. After two straight SEC Championship Game losses, their attempt to take the last step begins in spring ball.
Georgia's season didn't end poorly -- they beat Nebraska by two touchdowns in the Capital One Bowl after scoring the game's final 21 points -- but a 12-2 season and top-5 finish is starting to get tiresome for the Bulldogs. A third-straight SEC East title is the first goal, but it won't be easy with a still-strong South Carolina team and a Florida team that also only lost two games in 2012 and added one of the nation's best recruiting classes.
The good news is that an explosive offense returns. Aaron Murray has a chance to take over the school and conference record books, as the senior will start his fourth season at quarterback after a 36-touchdown, 10-interception season in which he completed a career-high 64.3 percent of his passes for a career-high 3,893 yards. And Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- each of whom gashed defenses to the tune of over six yards per carry in 2012, combining for over 2,100 yards as freshmen -- are back as well, behind all five returning offensive linemen. Two of Murray's top receivers are gone in Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, but not many elite teams boast this level of consistency on either side of the ball.
The bad news is that as much talent as the Dawgs return on offense, they lose on defense. Linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree both left early. Jones tallied 14.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles, Ogletree led the team in tackles, nd both could be off the board by the end of the first round of the NFL Draft. Nose tackle John Jenkins could be, as well. His loss is compounded because his backup, Kwame Geathers, declared early and will likely get selected. Both of the team's safeties, including hard-hitter Bacarri Rambo, are gone as well. Todd Grantham's (hey, at least he's coming back) swaggery unit loaded with menacing NFL-level athletes has been decimated, and it'll be interesting to see who steps up in spring ball.
There will be a number of fresh faces around Athens. Georgia has a whopping 13 early enrollees, a nearly unheard-of number. Georgia's turned early enrollees into stars in the past - Keith Marshall was one just a year ago - and although most of the spots on the offensive side of the ball are taken, expect at least one new kid on the block to get some serious reps throughout spring play.
Spring practice start date: March 2
Spring game date, location, TV info: April 6, 1 p.m. ET, CSS.
Approximate returning starters: Offense: 10. It's easier to list who doesn't return.
Defense: 4. Jordan Jenkins isn't John Jenkins or Jarvis Jones, but the elite prospect showed his worth as an outside linebacker his freshman year. Also back are defensive end Garrison Smith, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera and cornerback Damian Swann.
Biggest addition: There are 13 early enrollees. No other team has more than eight, and most teams are lucky to have two or three. The NCAA only allows you to count 10 signees towards previous classes, so even the national governing body doesn't expect teams to bring in 13 guys in spring. Expect at least a handful to make an impact on defense in March.
Biggest loss: There's a lot to choose from on the defensive side of the ball, but the biggest has to be Jones. 24.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks are not normal numbers, but Jones managed them while also forcing seven fumbles, all despite missing games. You don't replace that, but you can try and fill the role with multiple players. Also, defensive line coach Rodney Garner's exit appears to have already boosted Auburn.
New players? Georgia's early enrollees are (takes deep breath) running back Brendan Douglas, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, offensive lineman Brandon Kublanow, cornerback Reggie Wilkerson, safety Quincy Mauger, athlete Tramel Terry, defensive lineman John Atkins, linebacker Reggie Carter, cornerback JJ Green, JUCO wide receiver Jonathan Rumph, offensive lineman Aulden Bynum, and linebacker Ryan Rankin. Dawg Sports has done the lord's work and profiled all of them and their potential contributions in 2013, but obviously the ones to look out for are on the defensive side of the ball. (Seriously, go read those Dawg Sports profiles. Extremely comprehensive.)
New coaches? Georgia lost defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Garner, who had been with the Dawgs for 15 years, as Garner chose to return to Auburn, his alma mater. They brought in Chris Wilson, touted as one of Mississippi State's best recruiters. Wilson will be tasked with coaching the front of Georgia's 3-4, despite having worked with 4-3 defenses for his entire career.
New schemes? Maybe I'm not a football expert, but this new scheme the Dawgs were working on during winter conditioning drills really doesn't seem useful.
(Georgia should be pretty similar on the field in 2013, as Mike Bobo has already sped the offense up about as much as possible.)