Final SEC Rankings: Injuries gash Georgia

NCAA Football: Georgia at Georgia Tech

Injuries tempered expectations midseason, but Georgia’s still in a respectable spot at No. 8 in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, stability, recruiting and program momentum.

Final SEC Rankings of 2013:

14. Arkansas
13. Kentucky
12. Florida 
11. Tennessee
10. Ole Miss
9. Mississippi State
8. Georgia
7. Vanderbilt
6. Texas A&M
5. LSU
4. Alabama
3. South Carolina
2. Missouri
1. Auburn

Enjoy the debate.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3)

At some point, those of us on the outside had to feel bad for senior quarterback Aaron Murray, a torchbearer in the SEC and the league’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and yardage. Numbers alone puts him in the conversation with some of the conference’s best career passers, but a return to the SEC Championship Game remained elusive in his final season.

Murray’s season-ending injury suffered on Senior Day against Kentucky was a microcosm of Georgia’s season, one riddled with unfortunate injuries, wacky fourth quarters and overall dissatisfaction.

On-field performance: B-; Rash of injuries lead to losses

First it was top returning wideout Malcolm Mitchell who awkwardly twisted his knee following Todd Gurley’s 75-yard touchdown run in the season opener at Clemson. The strange, non-contact injury in the end zone was unfortunate for the Bulldogs, but the worst was yet to come.

Justin Scott-Wesley (knee), tailback Keith Marshall (knee) and wideout Michael Bennett (knee) all suffered season-ending injuries mid-year that depleted the Georgia offense and left Murray without his usual stable of reliable weapons.

Georgia’s best win came against South Carolina in Week 2 and when note-worthy victories come that early, it’s never good news for Mark Richt’s squad. The Bulldogs reached eight wins after outlasting Georgia Tech in overtime without Murray, but an unenthusiastic Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska left a lot to be desired.

Expectations: C+; East favorites fall flat

A few yards short.

It was a painful memory to erase for Georgia’s rising seniors, but the Bulldogs’ 32-28 loss to Alabama in the 2012 SEC Championship Game meant unfinished business for a program focused on getting back to the BCS and beyond.

RELATED: Georgia regular season recap

An opening loss at Clemson revealed major problems on defense before consecutive defeats against Mizzou and Vanderbilt snuffed out any crack at another East title. Ranked in the Top 10 at 4-1 before their early-afternoon battle with Gary Pinkel and the Tigers, Georgia had disguised its porous defense with high-scoring wins over South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee fueled by Murray.

That stretch wouldn’t last.

A preseason Top 5, Georgia was an elite coming in with a 1,300-yard rusher and standout senior quarterback, but the Bulldogs couldn’t handle personnel losses on defense and catastrophic injuries that continued as the season progressed.

Coaching: B+; Grantham’s out, Pruitt in

At times, Georgia’s defense was downright embarrassing this season, especially in the red zone. Opposing teams converted opportunities inside the 20-yard line into points 85.4 percent of the time, 12th-worst in the SEC. The Bulldogs finished second in the conference in sacks with 33, but struggled to force mistakes with a minus-7 turnover margin. Only Kentucky (3) intercepted fewer passes than Georgia (7).

Outgoing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham expected a production drop-off with a host of new starters and a leadership void left by Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo, but the holes in Georgia’s defense were noticeable throughout. Nick Marshall’s game-winning heave on 4th-and-forever may have been the worst highlight, but the Bulldogs’ inexperienced secondary was glaring with mistakes against several SEC quarterbacks prior to Jordan-Hare in November. The good news for incoming Florida State DC Jeremy Pruitt is that he’s inheriting a unit that returns a ton of players on the two-deep.

Props to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo for keeping a cohesive, record-setting unit together on offense despite the unexpected injury bug and putrid defense. The Bulldogs set a Georgia record for total offense per game at 484.2 yards every Saturday and managed to win four shootouts during which the defense gave up at least 30 points.

Recruiting: A-; Bulldogs reload at running back

Georgia’s 2011 signing class was a game-changer in the backfield with the addition of two North Carolina ballcarriers Gurley and Marshall. This year’s group yields another two-headed monster, five-star running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Nearly identical in size at 5-11, 210 pounds, the US Army All-Americans plowed through defenses as the focal point in their prep offenses but Michel’s wrinkle is his ability to catch passes out of the backfield.

RELATED: Georgia National Signing Day recap

Look out for five-star defensive end Lorenzo Carter (Norcross) who picked the Bulldogs over LSU. Carter’s the top-ranked player in Georgia by 247Sports and was a must-get for Pruitt.

The Bulldogs reached into the Carolinas for a pair of playmakers in defensive lineman Lamont Gaillard (Fayetteville, N.C.) and tight end Jeb Blazevich (Charlotte) along with heralded early enrollee quarterback Jacob Park (Charleston, S.C.) who was Mr. Football in the Palmetto state. Park, originally from Syracuse, N.Y., is a pro-style passer — perfect in Bobo’s scheme — and mirrors Murray’s strength and accuracy from the pocket.

Program momentum: B; Gurley’s back without a proven QB

The Bulldogs are one of the early leaders in the 2014 ‘Race for the East’ in what promises to be a wide-open division with new starting quarterbacks at every program — South Carolina, Mizzou, Vandy, Georgia — that won at least eight games last season.

Despite missing three games his sophomore campaign and being limited in another against LSU, Gurley finished 11 yards shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and proved to be a force in a depleted backfield. He’s the headliner for a Hutson Mason-led attack this fall that should get a workhorse number carries similar to Marcus Lattimore’s 249-attempt burden in 2010 with the Gamecocks. Gurley has better speed and with solid play up front from his offensive line, could hit 3,000 career rushing yards by the time the Bulldogs reach their second open date prior to playing Florida in Jacksonville on Nov. 1.

Photo Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

COMMENTS

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  • With Marshall possibly returning, AJ Turman coming off a redshirt, and Michel and Chubb coming on board, I don’t think Gurley will be worked like Lattimore. As great as Gurley is, there’s just too much talent waiting in the wings.

  • I think they should be OK next year, assuming stay injury free. Should have a good running game, have options at WR, defense should be much improved with new DC, special teams should be much improved now that finally have someone focusing on that. O-line might take a step back but hopefully have enough weapons to negate that. Be great if Hutson turns into a star but I think he should have enough experience and knowledge of system and players that as long as he does not turn the ball over and plays smart will be just what UGA needs.

    Here is hoping at least