There are elements of the 2015 Georgia Bulldogs that are clearly championship caliber. Few teams in the country can match what coach Mark Richt will put on the field at running back, outside linebacker and offensive line. Studs galore. Plenty to be excited about.
But then there’s the unsettled question at quarterback and the inescapable lack of a returning starter in the middle of the defense — a defense, you’ll remember, that got gashed for 106 points in Georgia’s three losses last year.
So there are some concerns as well.
Here’s a look at what this year’s Bulldogs should do best, as well as the areas where they still need some work.
2015 STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARTERS
Strength: Nick Chubb
We’ll get to the rest of the group in a minute. First, we’re focusing on the top Dawg in the backfield, because when you put up the kind of freshman season Chubb had last year, some individual glory has been earned. It’s well-documented that Chubb’s freshman season was one of the best in school history, but drilling a little deeper, it’s even more impressive. Of his 1,547 rushing yards, 1,323 came after he took over the starter spot against Missouri. During the last eight games of the season alone, he averaged 165 yards per contest, scored 12 touchdowns, topped 30 carries three times and went over 200 yards twice.
Weakness: QB — TBD
A somewhat similar situation worked out well last year, but it’s never desirable to go into a season without an SEC-tested quarterback. Sophomore Brice Ramsey still appears to be the favorite to emerge as the starter, but early reviews out of Athens have been mixed. Given Georgia’s strength up front and at running back, the quarterback won’t be asked to do much of the heavy lifting this fall, but for the Bulldogs to reach their highest aspirations — namely, an SEC title and a playoff appearance — they’ll need somebody under center who can be trusted to make big plays in critical spots.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARTERS
Strength: Jordan Jenkins
Among a corps of NFL-caliber outside linebackers, Jenkins is the leader. He may not be the first one picked in April and he may not be the one most likely to lead the conference in sacks, but he’s at least a decent bet for both. More importantly, he’s the most reliable. That could be crucial to the Bulldogs this year, because while Jenkins, Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter give Georgia plenty of options on the edges, they’ll be missing the leadership of departed inside linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera.
Weakness: Reggie Carter
Georgia doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses on defense. The Bulldogs have experience and talent at every level, and other than getting gashed by rivals Florida and Georgia Tech on the ground last year, the defense was solid against the run and the pass. The one exception is the inside linebacker position, which stands out for its lack of proven playmakers. That has prompted the coaching staff to experiment with sophomore Lorenzo Carter inside, bumping Reggie Carter to second team in base alignment, though he was still running with the first group in the nickel package.
Strength: Running backs
The Bulldogs are dealing with an embarrassment of riches in the backfield, as both of last year’s elite recruits lived up to the rankings. Though overshadowed by Chubb’s monster freshman season, Sony Michel showed flashes of game-breaking potential, rushing for 410 yards and five touchdowns on 64 carries in 2014. Then there’s one-time phenom Keith Marshall. Arriving in Athens with Todd Gurley as perhaps the more-hyped back, Marshall has never quite matched the potential he showed early in his career. Injuries have been a major culprit. After running for 759 yards (6.5 per carry) and eight scores as a freshman in 2012, Marshall has played in just eight games over the last two seasons. With one year left to play, he says he’s healthy and his speed is back. If he’s right, Georgia’s stable of running backs could be the deepest in the country.
Weakness: Wide receiver
With a new quarterback under center, the Bulldogs need a reliable target on the outside, so it’s imperative that one of the receivers takes on the mantle of the go-to guy. If Malcolm Mitchell can stay healthy, he could be the answer. Or it could be Justin Scott-Wesley if he recaptures the potential he showed in spurts during the 2013 season. Or maybe return specialist Isaiah McKenzie can develop into a true receiver or freshman Terry Godwin will fulfill the promise coaches see in him. There’s no shortage of candidates, but as of now, there are still plenty of questions.
A soft start to the season should give the Bulldogs time to fix any issues that linger into the regular season. Their only road game before Oct. 10 is at Vanderbilt, and though a home game with South Carolina follows, as far as SEC schedules go, this is not the toughest way to open the conference slate in 2015. September closes with a home game against Southern University before the difficulty gets turned up a notch.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the second month of the season isn’t the most challenging on this year’s schedule. After starting October by hosting Alabama, the Bulldogs go to Tennessee, return home to face Missouri, then head down to Jacksonville (after a bye week) for the annual rivalry date with Florida. Even if the Gators are down in Jim McElwains’s first year, or if Missouri slides after back to back division titles, that’s a brutal stretch.
Strength: Living in Athens
No matter what happens on Saturdays, life can’t be that bad when you make your home in one of the country’s best college towns.
Weakness: No more Mike Bobo to blame
Grumpy fans will have their creativity tested this season. For years, “GOTDANGIT, MIKE BOBO” has served as an effective shorthand gripe for all manner of offensive problems. Now the Bulldogs have a new offensive coordinator, and “Brian Schottenheimer” just doesn’t roll of the tongue in quite the same way.