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Bill King

Just how high should ‘high expectations’ for Mark Richt’s Dawgs go in 2014?

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Mark Richt told fans to have "high expectations" for the coming season. (John Kelley / UGA)

Mark Richt told fans to have “high expectations” for the coming season. (John Kelley / UGA)

What sort of football season should Georgia Bulldogs fans expect in 2014?

Speaking at his UGA Day appearance in Augusta earlier this week, The Augusta Chronicle reported, head coach Mark Richt said he hoped fans have “high expectations.”

“We all have high expectations for our team for our season,” Richt said. “The fact we have Hutson Mason as our starting quarterback [replacing the departed Aaron Murray] doesn’t make me feel like it can hold us back in any way. I think he’s ready for the challenge. I feel a lot better about him as a starter now that he’s done it a couple of times [last season]. He got a little taste of it and got it out of his system. I think he’ll be able to manage it a lot better.”

Richt also provided a little Dawg porn for fans, as tweeted by the Macon Telegraph’s Seth Emerson. Said Richt of star running back Todd Gurley: “I’m a Gurley man. … We’re gonna ride that big hoss.”

As for the rebuilding job on defense — particularly the much-maligned secondary — undertaken by new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Richt said he’s mainly looking for “our defense to play with a lot of intensity” and is “pleased with what I’ve seen so far.”

Pruitt has simplified the defensive schemes — which tended to be overly complicated under NFL veteran Todd Grantham — and Richt said he likes that. Despite the attrition in defensive personnel since the end of last season, he said, Georgia has “plenty of guys.”

It may be that some of the incoming freshmen will play, Richt said according to the Telegraph, but “whoever’s in there will be disciplined and know what they’re doing and play it well,” drawing by inference a contrast with last year’s Grantham defense.

Richt’s final verdict on the defense: “We think we’ll be fine.”

Of course, all that sounds like what you’d pretty much expect the Dogs’ head coach to say to a spring fan gathering. He’s hardly going to try and put a damper on the hopes of some of the team’s most ardent boosters.

Still, there’s no denying Georgia has a lot of experienced talent — especially on offense — and that’s no doubt a big reason why way-too-early projections for the Dogs in the coming season are tending to be favorable, if a bit short of predictions that Georgia will go all the way.

The Bulldogs recently made ESPN’s list of 16 contenders for the College Football Playoff, though they subsequently were dropped when the list was narrowed to eight (Alabama, Auburn, FSU, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA) because of uncertainty over the defense.

Football Spring Practice - Friday

As goes Todd Gurley, so go Georgia’s prospects for the 2014 season? (John Kelley / UGA)

Mark Schlabach’s summation of the Dawgs essentially said that as goes Gurley, so will go Georgia’s chances: “When Gurley is healthy, he’s the kind of player who can carry the Bulldogs … With Hutson Mason replacing the record-setting Aaron Murray at quarterback, UGA might need Gurley to remain upright more than ever.”

Meanwhile, Athlon already has come out with its preseason Top 25 and ranks Georgia eighth.

The Athlon overview of the Dogs: “After a season filled with injuries and bad luck, Georgia is poised to challenge for the SEC title in 2014. New quarterback Hutson Mason gained valuable experience late in the year, and the offense should benefit from a healthy Todd Gurley at running back and Malcolm Mitchell at receiver. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made an instant impact at Florida State last season, and the Bulldogs hope for a similar development in 2014.”

Mason doesn’t have as strong an arm as Murray, Athlon notes, but he “knows the offense … and more important, Mason has most of Murray’s supporting cast,” meaning Gurley, Keith Marshall, a deep receiver corps and experienced players to step into the spots left vacant by departing offensive linemen.

As for the defense, Athlon says, Georgia may have given up a program record for points last year, with the secondary the weak point, but “the run defense was actually solid (sixth in the SEC), and the 33 sacks were the second-most in the conference. The front seven essentially returns intact. Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson emerged as a first-team All-SEC pick, and outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are poised for bigger things.”

The defense’s prospects all come down to the secondary, Athlon says, “which wasn’t helped by the offseason dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and the transfer of cornerback Shaq Wiggins. But there is plenty of highly recruited talent back there. Pruitt just needs to find the right parts and figure out what Grantham and his staff couldn’t.”

In the final analysis, Athlon says, “barring the unforeseen, Georgia’s prospects come down to Mason and the defense. Mason’s spring performance provided some encouragement; then again, it was only spring practice. The defense, based simply on personnel, should be improved, and if Pruitt can push the right buttons, it could one of the best in the SEC. If Mason is good, the defense is better, and Gurley is healthy, Georgia can be a national title contender. But none of that is assured.”

Still, Athlon picked Georgia over South Carolina in the SEC East and cites Mason’s late-season experience, the addition of Pruitt from FSU’s staff, Gurley (“the best RB in college football?”) and a good schedule in pegging the Dogs as a Top 10 team.

However, Top 10 is one thing; the new College Football Playoff, limited to four teams, is another.

For those of you who believe anything less than a national championship is unacceptable and consider the Richt era at UGA a failure because of the lack of a national title, I know what the answer is: playoff or bust.

But how about the rest of you? Last season saw a couple of major SEC wins and a Top 5 ranking early on but a disappointing finish that left the Dogs ultimately unranked. Considering that, would bouncing back to a Top 10 finish in 2014 be good enough? Or do the Dawgs have to make the first College Football Playoff to satisfy you?

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

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