ATHENS, Ga. -- 2013. It will go down as a year Bulldog fans would like to forget, if only for the pain of knowing what could have been.
Coming off a 12-win season and gunning for a third consecutive SEC East title, the Georgia football team sank to 8-5 and capped its disappointing season with a loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. Of those five losses, four came by five points or fewer, and four of those wins were one-score games.
Given how close UGA was to knocking off Alabama and reaching the BCS title game in 2012, the end result of the ensuing season has been frustrating to just about everyone around the program. But what went wrong?
First word: Injuries
Nobody likes to talk about them, especially after the kind of season Georgia was forced to endure, but the team's rash of assorted ailments turned out to be the overarching story line of the season.
Aaron Murray, Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley all suffered torn ACLs. Michael Bennett, Chris Conley, Tray Matthews, Jay Rome and of course Todd Gurley all missed significant time due to injury, as well. In their place, Georgia was forced to dig deep at tailback and receiver and field players that otherwise may not have seen much playing time. It's also hard to understate just how much talent those hurt players accounted for, and the timing of these losses (early in the season) was just as unfortunate.
A healthy Murray in the Gator Bowl likely would have changed that outcome. The same could be said for Gurley, who did not play in losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt while also missing about half of the Clemson defeat. Mitchell was lost on the first drive of the season, and later Marshall and Scott-Wesley went down in the Tennessee near-loss. The only remaining defeat (Auburn) was lost on a jaw-dropping miracle play.
Second word: Youth
It was no secret that Georgia came into the season with a paltry sum of previous starting experience on the defensive side of the ball, most notably in the secondary.
The question was whether or not the unit could hold its own with a high-powered offense churning out points on the other side. But the scoring was stifled by injuries, putting the youth in the defensive backfield on full display.
Four true freshmen—Tray Matthews, Brendan Langley, Shaq Wiggins and Quincy Mauger—would log a start this season. Safety and star linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons saw his first significant action, as well. And the only man with prior starting experience, junior cornerback Damian Swann, struggled mightily through the first half of the season as UGA faced the likes of Tajh Boyd and Zach Mettenberger at quarterback.
The yards and points allowed on defense have already been mentioned ad nauseam. But where the inexperience especially hurt was in the turnover department: the Bulldogs forced just 15 turnovers all season (eight fumbles and seven picks) after forcing 30 in the previous year.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham attributed the decline to the youth of his unit, which again puts the focus squarely on 2014 as he enters the final year of his contract with Georgia.
Looking ahead: Bobo on the coaching carousel?
Head coach Mark Richt made it a point to tell reporters that continuity "is a good thing for Georgia." Or at least that appears to be the case for 2014.
Despite struggling on the defensive side of the ball, Richt affirmed after the Georgia Tech game that Grantham would return to the team next season. But the same may not be true of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who has been linked to the Georgia Southern head coaching vacancy by various reports.
"I think we all aspire, well I know I aspire to be a head coach, one day, and where at I don't know," Bobo said to the Macon Telegraph after the Gator Bowl. "But I also aspire to win a championship, here at the University of Georgia. We've been close so many times. And I do feel like the ingredients are there."
Bobo has been the team's offensive play-caller since 2007 and, despite the aforementioned injuries, still presided over a unit that averaged 36.7 points per game (good for 21st nationally). His potential departure would mean a huge coaching loss for the Bulldogs, who will enter next season with a new starting quarterback, tight end and three offensive linemen. But the man that fashioned Murray into a star has downplayed his availability on the coaching market.
"I'm not trying to actively pick up the phone and call up people," Bobo said. "If things happen, they happen. I've got a great job, I work for a great man, I've got great kids to coach, and we're always gonna get great players.
Don't be surprised if he's back in Athens next season.
We were already made aware of one impending UGA transfer back in December when the school announced that safety Shaquille Fluker would seek playing opportunities elsewhere. The JUCO product had received a redshirt in his first season with Georgia and appeared a long shot to start next season with Corey Moore, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Quincy Mauger all returning to the team.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), this came right around the time Tramel Terry, a redshirt freshman that was named "Mr. Football" for South Carolina in 2012, began working at safety. He was originally recruited as a receiver, having excelled on offense, but coaches confirmed that the move would be a long-term one.
“He’s got a good body type for that. We thought it’d be good for him. He was all for it. So that’s what we’re doing,” Richt said. “Right now we think it’s best for him. And I think he feels good about it.”
As it turns out, Fluker won't be the only player to transfer: he will be joined by redshirt sophomore quarterback Christian LeMay.
“LeMay has decided to move on, and I wish nothing but the best to him in his career,” Bobo said to the Macon Telegraph. “I do think he’s got a chance to be a very good player, and hopefully the place he goes to, and the system they run, he has a chance to be successful.
LeMay failed to distinguish him in his three seasons with the Bulldogs, a fact that became apparent when Faton Bauta seized his role as third-string quarterback coming out of fall camp. He enrolled as a highly-touted four-star, dual-threat passer but leaves with only two career passing attempts under his belt. His brother, Uriah, is a freshman receiver who took a redshirt in 2013. It appears he will remain with the team.
Final word: Close
In so many ways, Georgia was close to a far better season than what transpired, even with the number of narrow victories in which this team partook.
Unfortunately, a year of “almost's” will satisfy neither fans nor Richt. The coaching staff will not see any major turnover, but Grantham will remain under heavy scrutiny until he can get his unit to defend the pass with more consistency. Either that, or he could be looking for job openings by the time 2015 rolls around.
Recruiting will take the spotlight over the weeks leading up to National Signing Day. But for now, we will bid adieu to a season UGA fans can only reference with exasperated sighs and the question "what if?"