SEC: Mark Richt

Let's be real here.

If ever there were a season in which Georgia wasn't expected to win a championship or play in a big bowl game, that would be news.

So, yes, the Dawgs should absolutely be in the discussion as one of the teams in 2015 who could make a run at a New Year's Six bowl and maybe even a spot in the College Football Playoff. They're the early favorite in the SEC's Eastern Division race and are starting to show up with regularity in the top 10 of the early preseason polls.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Richt's Georgia squad is among the early SEC favorites that could make a run at the College Football Playoffs next year.
There are a lot of reasons to believe that 2015 will be the year it all falls right for Mark Richt, entering his 15th season as Georgia's head coach. He was a big winner this offseason. Not only did he get a raise and an extension, taking him to $4 million per year, but he got a lot more cash for some of his staff members, namely defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who went to $1.3 million annually.

If there were questions about whether Richt was on shaky ground with the upper administration at Georgia, there shouldn't be now.

He has a team returning in 2015 that should again be lights out on offense with sophomore running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returning (Keith Marshall, too) and a veteran offensive line that returns four starters.

The Bulldogs were a load running the football last season against everybody, with or without Todd Gurley. Chubb was playing at a different level when the season ended a year ago. Is there a more explosive returning player in the SEC?

Defensively, Pruitt has a lot more pieces to work with, especially in the front seven. The Dawgs have two true freshmen coming in -- defensive tackles Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter -- who should make an impact right away. They're also stacked at outside linebacker with returning veterans Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Jordan Jenkins.

Look for Georgia's defense to be much more disruptive in Pruitt's second season in Athens. The Bulldogs should be as good as they've been in a while, both up front defensively and at outside linebacker.

The schedule also tilts in Georgia's favor. That early-season nonconference game with Clemson comes off, and the Dawgs don't have to play South Carolina until the third game. That's significant because Georgia has suffered at least one loss in its first two games in five of the last six seasons.

What could go wrong

The combination of a first-year offensive coordinator and first-year starter at quarterback is never ideal, but that's what Georgia will be facing in 2015. Brian Schottenheimer replaces Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator, and the quarterback battle will come down to third-year sophomore Brice Ramsey and redshirt freshman Jacob Park.

No matter which way Schottenheimer decides to go, he's going to be working with an inexperienced quarterback. Ramsey has a big arm and is more of a pocket passer. Park also throws it well, but is one of those guys who's also comfortable running around and trying to make a play.

With the Bulldogs' running game and offensive line, it should be easier to break in a new quarterback. But problems at the quarterback position usually mean problems for the whole team.

There's also a three-game stretch to kick off October that looks nasty. The good news is that Georgia gets Alabama and Missouri at home, but those games are sandwiched around a trip to what should be an improved Tennessee team on Oct. 10. Getting through that stretch unscathed will be a chore, and there are also trips to Auburn and Georgia Tech in November.

The secondary will bear watching as well, especially with cornerback Damian Swann gone. He wore several different hats for the Dawgs, and there aren't a lot of upperclassmen back there.

Georgia's undoing, more times than not, has been losing a game it had no business losing. See the Florida game a year ago.

We'll see if the Dawgs can keep from falling into that trap in 2015.
There was a lot of turnover at the coordinator ranks in the SEC this offseason. If you're keeping score at home -- and we know you are SEC fanatics -- 14 coordinating changes took place.

Before anyone runs a route in practice or sets up for blocking drills, debates will rage about which schools made the best hires. We will also debate who enters 2015 with the biggest target on his back and the most pressure to deal with.

That's what we will focus on right now: pressure. Honestly, with so much movement, you could have a field day with who you think has the smallest margin for error in his new home. Take Will Muschamp and John Chavis for instance. Both are considered defensive wizards, but their moves this offseason come with hefty expectations. Muschamp moved from being the head coach at Florida to trying to repair an Auburn defense that has been awful the past two seasons. Chavis left LSU for Texas A&M with the responsibility to turn around yet another cringe-worthy defense.

[+] EnlargeBrian Schottenheimer
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonGeorgia's new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will have a veteran offensive line and plenty of weapons at his disposal in his first season.
Oh, and both broke the bank with their contracts. If they fail to make any sort of immediate improvement with two units that can only go up, and you better believe they will be viewed as major disappointments.

You also have head coach Derek Mason taking over defensive responsibilities at Vanderbilt, and Doug Nussmeier pegged as what feels like the 10th coach in the past five years to resurrect Florida's offense. And what about the interesting hire of Mike DeBord at Tennessee? He hasn't coached any football since 2012, and has to keep an upstart offense going.

All of these guys will feel some sort of heat if they don't excite fans or get the ball rolling early. But the coordinator feeling the most pressure in Year 1 at his new digs is Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Yes, the man picked to replace the enigmatic -- but very successful -- Mike Bobo can't afford to slip one bit in his first year in Athens. Though he has to figure out who his quarterback will be, Schottenheimer, who served as the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator the past three seasons, has the benefit of returning four experienced offensive line starters, a solid receiving corps led by vets Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, and possibly the nation's best running back in sophomore Nick Chubb. He has weapons at his disposal, but he still has to get them in the right position.

With so many questions in the SEC Eastern Division (again), Georgia is the early and maybe obvious favorite to take the division. This team has enough depth and talent coming back on both sides of the ball to win more than just the SEC East, but we've certainly seen this movie before when it comes to Georgia. Getting out of its own way has been a major issue for Georgia, but excuses won't really fly this season ... not with how last season ended.

With the way defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt burst onto the scene with a very successful first year in Athens, fans won't approve of a drop-off from Schottenheimer, who wasn't exactly the "wow hire" fans were looking for. The Rams' offense, which did endure some tough injuries, ranked 28th in the NFL in total offense last season, and his bouncing around the NFL has been met with mixed reviews.

But Georgia's offensive philosophy won't change under Schottenheimer. Though Bobo endured a lot of criticism from fans, his offenses were some of the best in the SEC for much of his Georgia tenure. The Bulldogs' offense has ranked among the top four of the SEC the past four seasons, and Bobo's final season ended with Georgia ranking fourth in the league, averaging 457.8 yards per game and a conference-high 6.79 yards per play.

With Chubb, who ran for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, Schottenheimer's first option will -- and should -- be to hand the ball off, as he helps groom a new quarterback. Though this offense should be Chubb-centric, Schottenheimer must help create a more explosive passing game this season. Georgia's passing fell off during the transition from Aaron Murray to Hutson Mason, and the Dawgs just can't endure another average year through the air. There needs to be a legitimate threat of the deep ball.

Georgia's offense, while predicated on running the ball, is very balanced, and Schottenheimer can't stray away from that mindset. Not in a year in which the Bulldogs should be on top of the East and maybe making a playoff run.

The pieces are in place for Schottenheimer to make a smooth transition, but there will be very little leeway from a fan base thirsty for a championship and still trying to feel out its new coordinator.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Chuks Amaechi is out to prove a lot with his new team.

Fresh from the dry desert climate in Arizona, Amaechi is in Athens to play. And he doesn't want to just play around or bide his time. No, Georgia's new junior college transfer linebacker trekked 2,000-plus miles to earn a starting job. Actually, he'd prefer to earn his starting spot this spring, but he'll settle for the Bulldogs' spring game on April 11.

“Just find a way to get on the field and play, and help the team," Amaechi said.

Now, that's a modest line for someone whose confidence was oozing through his Georgia polo shirt on national signing day, but the truth is that Amaechi understands the situation he's fallen into with the Bulldogs. He isn't looking for a handout, either. Amaechi wants to earn everything.

Georgia will be Amaechi's fourth school in as many years, but the opportunity in front of him could pay dividends. With linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera gone, two spots just happen to be open on defense, one of them being at the middle linebacker spot Wilson left and Amaechi hopes to inherit. The loss of Wilson and Herrera takes away a lot of production, including 225 tackles from last year. Amaechi views the task of replacing one of those guys as a delicious challenge. His eyes lit up when he talked about finding a starting spot in Georgia's defense and there was no sense of anxiety for Amaechi when he spoke about earning his keep with the Dawgs.

“I see it as motivation too," Amaechi said. "I’m trying to come into their shoes and try to get more than 100 tackles -- 120, if I can. Anything I can do.”

But Amaechi doesn't just have the itch to get on the field early, he carries a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove that spending the better part of his life away from southern football doesn't mean he can't cut it in the country's toughest conference. That's why he picked Georgia after a stint at Arizona Western College. Thanks to his defensive coordinator knowing Georgia inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler from his USC days, Amaechi's name was able to trickle Georgia's way.

Ekeler got wind of Amaechi's talents and headed out to Arizona to check him out last fall. After watching and recording about an hour's worth of Amaechi's practice, Ekeler headed back to Athens and showed coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt Amaechi's film. With all three impressed with what they were watching, Amaechi was offered on Oct. 17, and he committed almost immediately.

Amaechi, a 2014 first-team All-Western States Football League team member and second-team All-NJCAA selection, registered 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. He was lucky to find his way over to the SEC, but fate has a funny way of making things work out, and now he wants to show that he truly belongs with two years of eligibility remaining.

“Coming from Arizona, people don’t think people from the West Coast can ball like people from the South, so I’m just trying to make a point to the people down South that the West Coast ball is the same," he said.

SEC signing day roundtable: Coach under pressure

February, 10, 2015
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There is only one new face among SEC head coaches this year -- Florida’s Jim McElwain -- but a number of the league’s head honchos face increased pressure to perform in 2015.

Continuing this week’s SEC series of post-signing day roundtable discussions, today we’ll examine the conference coaches who are under pressure to make something happen after signing their newest class of recruits.

Edward Aschoff: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Year 4 of the Freeze era is beginning, and expectations are about to explode in Oxford. After being on the cusp of an SEC West title and a spot in the first College Football Playoff, Ole Miss now has to stay in the thick of the title hunts. While Freeze has been enormously successful during his time at Ole Miss, he has now signed three straight top-20 classes, and now the 2013 class (the crown jewel of Freeze’s tenure) will be all grown up. If the bulk of that class is going to bring a championship to Ole Miss, the time is now because the heavy hitters, like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, will likely head to the NFL after this coming season. There’s too much talent in Oxford for Ole Miss not to compete for a spot in Atlanta, and anything else will be considered a failure.

David Ching: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
I was tempted to focus on Mark Richt or Les Miles because the natives seem to be getting restless at Georgia and LSU, but let’s go in a different direction. Mason probably needs to get more out of this 2015 class immediately than those two SEC veterans. Last season was a mess at Vandy, with the Commodores failing to put up a good fight in most of their nine losses. Their three wins came against UMass (by three points), Charleston Southern (by one) and Old Dominion (by 14), and they lost by an average of 18 points per game in SEC play. Now Mason enters his second season with two new coordinators (actually he’ll be his own defensive coordinator) and a recruiting class that ESPN ranked No. 44 nationally, dead last in the SEC. Mason told reporters on signing day that he staked his reputation on the quality of this class, which is all well and good. But if the Commodores don’t start looking like a more competent team this fall, I’m not sure Mason’s reputation as a head coach will be too great.

Sam Khan Jr.: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
I think Travis Haney said it best Insider that Sumlin must begin to reap the fruits of the recruiting labor he and his staff have put in over the last three years. The Aggies' classes ranked eighth, fourth and 12th nationally in Sumlin's first three full recruiting cycles, and the team now enters its fourth year in the SEC. He made significant coaching staff changes (including paying a pretty penny for former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis), and overall the Aggies have recruited better than any team in their own state -- which is talent-rich -- since Sumlin has been there. It's time for the recruiting hauls to translate to the standings.

Chris Low: Mark Stoops, Kentucky
As it turns out, the sky didn't fall at Kentucky after the Wildcats lost six commitments in a span of eight days leading up to signing day. Thanks to some hustle by Stoops and his staff, Kentucky was able to plug some of the gaps late and finish with the nation's 43rd-ranked class. The problem was that Stoops reeled in the 20th-ranked class the year before, so expectations were lofty. As Stoops enters his third season at Kentucky -- with a brand-new contract that will pay him an average of $3.57 million per year -- expectations will be equally high on the field. Kentucky will be aiming for its first winning season since 2009. The Wildcats looked like they were on their way in 2014 after starting out 5-1, but wound up losing their last six games.

Greg Ostendorf: Jim McElwain, Florida
All things considered, McElwain deserves credit for this class. He took over two months before signing day and closed with a top-20 class that included five-star prospects Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson. But this class had a chance to be more than solid. It had the potential to be great. Florida missed on a number of homegrown prospects, including Byron Cowart and Jeff Holland, who both decided to leave home to play at Auburn for the man McElwain replaced. The first-year coach deserves a pass for this class, but he can’t keep letting the top players out of the state. Losing battles to Florida State is one thing. Losing battles to Will Muschamp and Auburn is another.

Alex Scarborough: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
The great thing about Steve Spurrier is that you can take him at his word. But this time I think his openness hurt him. By telling reporters he thought he'd stay at South Carolina 2-3 more years, he had to turn some recruits off. I mean, who would commit to a program knowing the head coach wouldn't be there the whole way through? Though his 31-man signing class was solid, coming in at No. 21 overall in the country, it was what was missing that Gamecocks fans should find troubling -- most notably, four-star defensive players Damon Arnette and Arden Key, who both decommitted heading down the stretch. While you have to appreciate Spurrier’s honest assessment of himself, reading a head coach say this has to be jarring: "I don't think I did a very good job of maybe going full-speed as much as we needed as it turned out."

Derek Tyson: Butch Jones, Tennessee
After two top-five recruiting classes in a row, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones now has the talent on his roster to make a move in the SEC East. With Josh Dobbs showing promise last season and several other freshmen having standout years, including Derek Barnett, Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr., the talent is in place to have a big season on the field this year. Another 7-6 season could have Tennessee fans getting a little restless.
ATHENS, Ga. – The controversial elimination of UAB’s football program in December cast an ugly shadow on the sport of college football. From the shock of the program’s dismantling to the less-than-adequate reasons for its destruction, UAB’s abandonment of its football program left people jobless and to some extent hopeless.

But through the darkness was some light and a glimmer of hope in the form of linebacker Jake Ganus.

Likely unknown to most in SEC country, Ganus’ unflattering exit from UAB didn’t cast him out of college football. In fact, Ganus made quite the upgrade by landing at Georgia after being pursued by around 40 schools following UAB’s demise.

[+] EnlargeJake Ganus
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsJake Ganus lands at Georgia after having led UAB in tackles in 2013 and 2014.
After what was an up-and-down start to the month of December, Ganus, a senior-to-be, found solid ground after a visit, offer and commitment to Georgia in only a week’s span.

“It was a rollercoaster, that’s for sure,” Gansus said. “You beat Southern Miss on Saturday to become bowl eligible and then the next day you find out you’re losing your team. Two weeks later, I find out I have an offer from Georgia.

“It worked out for the best, and I’m glad that I’m here.”

Ganus’ arrival at Georgia gives the Bulldogs a critical piece to their puzzle at inside linebacker, where they lost startersAmarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, It also gives Ganus renewed life at a dream school he never thought he’d have the chance to play for.

Despite being a highly sought-after free agent in December, Ganus, who led UAB in tackles the last two seasons, wasn’t much of a high school recruit. His only FBS offers came from UAB, Air Force and Navy; two of them offered him as an option quarterback.

But after spending three years as a starter at UAB, accumulating 226 tackles with 28 for loss and six sacks, Ganus became an attractive prospect for plenty of schools seeking help at linebacker.

He took a short visit to Marshall, but Ganus, who was born in Alpharetta, Georgia, committed to the Bulldogs after his visit to Georgia.

"We took a good look at the [UAB} film, but Jake stood out,” coach Mark Richt said. “He's a guy that we thought could come in and help us. Obviously Jake doesn't have a lot of eligibility left, but he's got a lot of maturity about him, and we really believe he's going to come in and give us some good pop."

Ganus hasn’t played SEC ball, but he has dipped his toe in it. This past season, he recorded a season-high 11 tackles at Arkansas, which is a game he think helped him land so much attention from bigger schools.

“That was my best game of the year, and that shows I can compete at this level,” Ganus said. “It’ll be a lot different competing weekly at the level, but I’m up to the challenge.”

While Ganus is ecstatic about playing at Georgia, he feels for the former UAB players and coaches not afforded the same kind of opportunity. Anger and sadness resonate when he thinks about the death of UAB’s program.

Ganus said rumors of UAB’s demise circulated throughout the season, but coaches tried to diffuse those rumblings. But the signs were always there: the questionable financial reports, the promise of a turf field that was shut down for no reason, a locker room that Ganus described as “probably worse than half the high schools in Birmingham” before its recent renovation.

Even as more reports of flawed numbers concerning UAB’s financial situation with the program surface, Ganus can set aside his anger and bitterness.

“It’s a tough thing, but I hope it all works out for the best,” he said.

“I try not to think too much about it because it does make me upset and I hate it. … I hope everything gets worked out over there and they can bring it back one day.”

For now, Ganus has new life and a new home. He has only nine more months with the Dawgs, but he plans to take full advantage of that time. His departure from UAB was gut-wrenching, but Ganus has found renewed faith and happiness in Athens.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “I love Athens, I love Georgia, the whole community. You walk around town and you know football is important. It means something to these people. In class, students [are] wearing Georgia gear; every single one of them has something Georgia on. That’s something new for me, and I love that. I take so much pride in that. It’s been a lot different, but in a good way. I couldn’t be happier to be here, and I’m so excited.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- As Mark Richt strolled up to his jet black podium to address the media about Georgia’s 2015 signing class, there didn’t appear to be a hint of angst. Richt, as laid back a coach as you'll find, simply slid to the front of the room, bright lights beaming down on behind him, and happily discussed yet another top-10 class for the Bulldogs.

"We are absolutely thrilled about these young men and can't wait to see them do their thing,” Richt said. “Some of them are already here doing their thing a little bit.”

It was easy for Richt grin ear-to-ear and have some enthusiasm in his voice. Outside of some afternoon theatrics, Richt and his crew had a pretty stress-free day in Athens. Thanks to a stellar and steady recruiting effort from the start, Georgia had most of its class secured in the morning. By 10 a.m., the Dawgs had already secured 22 signees (eight early enrollees). At the end of the day, Georgia had signed 29 players, 18 of which were four-star players or better, including 14 ESPN 300 members

Richt, who has been criticized in the past for not keeping top players at home, had little problem securing in-state talent, as the top-seven players in this class hailed from the state of Georgia, including No. 2 overall defensive tackle -- and five-star stud -- Trenton Thompson, and No. 5 athlete Terry Godwin.

Despite a couple of late flips and the continuing saga of four-star linebacker Roquan Smith and his decision, the Dawgs made out quite well on national signing day. They even concluded the day with the unnecessarily theatrical signing from Godwin, who prolonged his ceremony until 6 p.m. ET, for, you know, dramatic effect.

While there was no real early drama for the Dawgs, this class hit on the necessary needs. In a year in which Georgia unflatteringly came in second in the SEC Eastern Division, rumors swirled and intensified about Richt’s coaching future, and long-time offensive coordinator Mike Bobo left to become the head coach at Colorado State, Georgia didn’t miss a recruiting beat.

No, the Dawgs coasted to a signing day finish line without many bumps or bruises, and could still land another big fish in Smith to cap off the school’s fifth straight top-10 recruiting class, and seventh in the past eight years.

Where Georgia really struck gold was with its defensive line class. With just five scholarship linemen returning, Richt and his crew went out and signed six players destined for the defensive line. Two -- defensive tackle Jonathan Ledbetter, a four-star who flipped from Alabama, and four-star defensive end Michael Barnett -- enrolled early, giving Georgia more room to rotate up front this spring.

“You've got to have the beef up front, both sides of the ball,” Richt said. “You've got to have guys that can command double teams. You've got to have guys that can hopefully put pressure on a quarterback without having to bring blitzes and things of that nature, guys that can be stout in their run gap responsibilities and not get pushed around. It's truly important to have the big men up front. I think we did a good job there."

And the thing about this defensive line haul is that it’s both quantity and quality. With so little depth coming back up front, it was imperative that Georgia’s staff go out and sign quality numbers. Georgia did just that, and might have landed the nation’s best defensive line class.

“I’m pretty glad that we’re known as one of the best defensive line groups,” Barnett said. “Hopefully, it pans out that way, as the season comes along. I’m just happy to be a part of that group.”

The headliner is Thompson, who should push for immediate playing time when he gets on campus. The 6-foot-4, 311-pound monster in the middle was a critical piece to Georgia’s class, and Richt wasn’t shy about gushing over Thompson’s talents.

“Trent is a big, massive man who has got great agility,” Richt said. “If you meet him, he's just the nicest guy you ever want to meet, but when he's playing ball, he gets after it. He's just got tremendous quickness for a big man, changes direction, plays very hard, and I think probably the reason why he got rated as high as he did is when you start taking these guys and bringing them to allstar games or combines or whatever and you start letting them compete with some of the best, the word I got from some of those kids in those situations were like, the guy just was very difficult to handle by anybody.”

And the hope in Athens is that adding a class like this will increase the Dawgs’ chances of being difficult to handle this fall. With the East still littered with questions, Georgia once again has the talent to take the division. Getting out of its own way appears to be Georgia’s biggest obstacle, but the new guys are noticing a fiery attitude early and bitterness toward last season.

“When I talk to [teammates] I get chills,” JUCO linebacker transfer Chuks Amaechi said. “When they talk, you can hear it in their voices that they’re hungry for a championship.”

Season report card: Georgia Bulldogs

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
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Judge Georgia's season on two fronts.

On one hand, the Bulldogs recorded multiple impressive wins, finished with 10-plus victories for the ninth time in Mark Richt's 14 season and did it without superstar tailback Todd Gurley for half the season. On the other, this easily could have been a much more successful season -- and that's why so many Bulldogs fans are frustrated this offseason.

Offense: B. Before Gurley's suspension for accepting payment for autographed memorabilia, Georgia's offense was nearly unstoppable and he was the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. The surprise was Georgia's rushing effectiveness even without Gurley, with freshman Nick Chubb running for a ridiculous 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Hutson Mason was OK, setting a school record with a 67.9 completion percentage, but the offense was not as dangerous on downfield throws as it had been in recent seasons. At times, it was Chubb-or-bust.

Defense: B. Overall, Jeremy Pruitt had an encouraging first season as the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator, but a common thread in the Bulldogs' three losses was that Pruitt's bunch failed to get stops. They gave up 35.3 points per game in the three losses -- including an awful 38 points and 418 rushing yards to a previously inept Florida offense -- and 16.3 ppg in the 10 wins. The Bulldogs have to do a better job against the run (166.8 ypg) to take a step forward in 2015.

Special teams: B-plus. Although kicker Marshall Morgan was not as zoned in as he had been in 2013 -- a late missed chip shot against South Carolina was particularly critical -- Georgia's special teams units improved overall. Most importantly, they were truly dangerous in the return game for the first time in several years. Georgia returned four kicks for touchdowns -- three by freshman Isaiah McKenzie -- and did a fine job defending kickoffs and punts. It was a big step in the right direction for Georgia.

Coaching: C. Georgia fans were livid with Richt after the debacles against Florida and Georgia Tech, and for good reason. The Florida loss was inexplicable and the Tech game slipped away thanks in no small part to Richt's boneheaded decision to squib kick at the end of regulation. Georgia hammered eventual SEC East champ Missouri 34-0 and had the talent to represent the division in the SEC title game and possibly the College Football Playoff. With that in mind, 10-3 doesn't look so great.

Overall: B. Considering they were without one of the nation's best players for seven games, it's impressive that the Bulldogs didn't fold when Gurley left the lineup. In fact, things looked great when the Bulldogs routed Missouri and Arkansas on the road immediately after Gurley's suspension. But Georgia was unable to keep it together down the stretch, and its overtime loss to Georgia Tech only added insult to injury when the Bulldogs were unable to win the East. It was a solid overall season at Georgia, but it still ended in disappointment.
This question is open to interpretation at Georgia. If we’re talking about the biggest question marks, the Bulldogs have several spots where they lost experienced veterans -- including at receiver, linebacker and defensive line.

But for our purposes, we’ll look at the key position in Georgia’s pro-style offense.

Position to improve: Quarterback

Why it was a problem: It was tempting to pick the young secondary here, but Georgia actually ranked fifth nationally in pass defense, allowing 170.4 yards per game. Instead, let’s discuss why the Bulldogs need to improve at quarterback. It’s not that Hutson Mason was bad in 2014. He set a school record with a 67.9 completion percentage along with 2,168 yards, 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions. But Mason and the Bulldogs struggled to throw the ball downfield at times. Considering how effective Georgia’s passing game has been in the Mark Richt era, it’s crazy to see that Mason passed for at least 200 yards in just one game -- when he had 319 in an upset loss to Florida. Granted, Georgia’s dominant running game meant the Bulldogs rarely needed Mason to carry the offense. But an improved vertical passing attack complementing the running of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel could make Georgia’s offense downright lethal.

How it can be fixed: Sophomore Brice Ramsey seems to be the heir apparent at quarterback, although junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park also will take their shots at winning the job between now and September. Blessed with prototypical size (6-foot-3) and a strong throwing arm, Ramsey played the most behind Mason in 2014 and did OK, completing 61.5 percent of his passes (24-for-39) for 333 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. It’s important to mention here that although Ramsey played far less than Mason, he accounted for two of the Bulldogs’ five longest completions of the season (a 47-yard throw to Jonathon Rumph against Kentucky and a 39-yard completion to Chris Conley against Troy). The kid still needs to work on his accuracy and decision-making, but he can sling it. If he wins the starting job ahead of Bauta and Park, it stands to reason that Georgia will take more downfield shots.

Early 2015 outlook: It’s not necessarily a given that Ramsey will be the starter. Bauta’s work ethic is his calling card, and he will certainly put in the work to impress new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. And Park -- also 6-3 and blessed with a rocket arm -- stood out as a member of the scout team during his redshirt season. Park also can run a bit, so he will be another interesting candidate to watch this spring. He certainly has the tools to challenge for the job, but Ramsey will enter spring practice as the front-runner. If he, or whoever becomes the starter, can come close to Mason’s completion percentage and add the deep throw back to Georgia’s passing game, the Bulldogs’ offense could rank among the SEC’s best next season.

SEC morning links

January, 22, 2015
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1. Despite some coaching turnover in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and rumors swirling about offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin bolting back into the NFL, Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't exactly rushing to figure out his coaching staff. I'm sure Saban would love to immediately fill the coaching holes left by Kevin Steele (LSU) and Lance Thompson (Auburn), but with the final weeks of recruiting here, Saban just doesn't have the time to do the proper scouting or interviewing. I mean, when you're Nick Saban and Alabama, I think you can get by with not having a couple of coaching positions filled, even at this point in the year.

2. After losing linebackers coach Randy Shannon to Florida, Bret Bielema just plucked an accomplished coach from the Sunshine State to replace him. That man is Vernon Hargreaves II, who brings 30 years of coaching experience to Arkansas. The father of Florida standout cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has an exhaustive coaching resume, including a national championship with the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, and should also keep that strong recruiting in south Florida that Shannon had. Like Shannon, Hargreaves' ties with the Hurricanes are strong, and he should be a good addition to Bielema's staff. Next up for Bielema? Find on offensive coordinator ...

3. For one of the SEC's most accomplished coaches in the regular season, Wednesday's announcement of a contract extension and a raise should have been considered a no-brainer. But when you haven't won the SEC championship at a school like Georgia since 2005, you can't blame fans for their uneasiness toward their head coach. Still, for all the negativity that Mark Richt has had to deal with from Georgia fans -- some of it is justified -- he's had a heck of a coaching career with the Bulldogs. His .739 winning percentage (136-48 record) ranks fourth among active FBS coaches who have coached at least 100 games in FBS conferences, and he's had nine seasons with 10 or more wins at Georgia in his 14 years in Athens. But with an extension going through 2019 and Richt now making $4 million a year, the time to win an SEC title is now. The Bulldogs are equipped with the talent to make a strong run through the SEC, and you know those same fans unhappy with the lack of championship swag in Georgia's trophy cases won't be pleased with anything less than a title run or two in 2015.

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Now that we're hours away from watching Oregon take on Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, it makes sense to peer into the not-so-distant future and try to find teams that could -- and should -- compete for conference titles and then some in 2015.

When I look at Georgia, I see a team that appears to be a quarterback away from making a deep run through the SEC and hopping into the second-ever College Football Playoff. And really, the Bulldogs could be the best-equipped team in the SEC for such a season.

Much has been made of coach Mark Richt, who is now 136-48 at Georgia, and his lack of titles. It's been a decade full of missed opportunities since Georgia's last SEC title, but 2015 could provide the remedy for Georgia's blues.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsBehind running back Nick Chubb, the road to Atlanta -- and potentially beyond -- sets up nicely for the Dawgs.
Offensively, the Bulldogs might have the SEC's best returning running back in Nick Chubb, along with a deep receiving corps, while the defense returns just about everyone from a group that vastly improved under first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in 2014.

Georgia isn't the perfect team, and won't be the nation's preseason No. 1, but the parts are there for a very big season. And if the Bulldogs fall short of at least a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, there will be a lot of justifiably upset Dawgs fans.

It's time for Georgia to get out of its own way and go win the SEC title before "Georgiaing" replaces "Clemsoning."

Yes, the quarterback situation -- which will be headed by current redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey, redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta and true freshman Jacob Park -- is a little hazy at the moment due to relative inexperience, but there are enough weapons returning on this offense for me to be comfortable throwing the ball. And don't expect any wholesale scheme changes under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

As long as the Dawgs are constantly feeding Chubb the ball, that offense will be fine. Much like Todd Gurley, Chubb plays like he's from a different planet. He rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns in just eight starts. When Gurley started 12 games as a freshman, he ran for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. Chubb also averaged 7.1 yards per carry compared to Gurley's 6.2. I'm not trying to say that Chubb is better than Gurley, which he very well could be, but I think the running game is in good hands with the youngster.

Also, don't forget about the speedy, elusive Sony Michel, who could have a bigger role in the offense this fall as well.

The offensive line returns four starters, all upperclassmen. Veterans Malcolm Mitchell and speedy Justin Scott-Wesley lead a talented, young receiving corps that should make up for the losses of Chris Conley and Michael Bennett.

And that's all before we get to what should be an even better defense in 2015. Pruitt did a masterful job getting players adjusted to his defensive philosophy and how he wanted guys to approach games and practice, and he will have an even older group to work with in 2015. The key was getting rush specialists Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd back. They could have flirted with the NFL, but decided to stay in Athens, which was the right move. The two combined for 11 sacks last year, but freshman Lorenzo Carter, who took some starts away from Floyd in 2014, could be a really special player after registering 4.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries.

The defensive line will need some retooling with a couple of seniors gone, but the rotation last year was good enough to get guys such as Sterling Bailey and Josh Dawson quality snaps.

Then, there's the secondary that outside of veteran Damian Swann was almost completely comprised of underclassmen, who matured and improved steadily as the season went on. Georgia finished the year second in the SEC in pass defense (170.4 yards per game) and didn't allow any team to pass for more than 142 yards in the final month of the regular season.

The schedule sets up nicely, too. Georgia has two road games within the first month -- Vanderbilt and Tennessee. The Bulldogs get Alabama, South Carolina and Missouri at home before trips to Auburn and Georgia Tech. Tennessee certainly won't be a walk in the park, but Florida and South Carolina are considerable unknowns and both Alabama and Missouri lose a lot from this season.

The bottom line is that this team is loaded and the road to Atlanta -- and potentially beyond -- sets up nicely for the Dawgs. It was set up well this season and Georgia didn't take advantage. That can't happen in 2015. With the state of the East and the strength of the Dawgs, it's unacceptable for the team not to make it to Atlanta. There's little room for excuses for the Dawgs.

Dawgs fans are rightfully restless and tired of the continuous shortcomings. Richt engineered the last title run, and he has a team capable of accomplishing that feat again.
Let's not sit here and act like 2014 wasn't a disappointment for the Georgia Bulldogs. There's a reason head coach Mark Richt sat so comfortably in a hotel meeting room in Hoover, Alabama, and delivered a confident decree about having the SEC East's best team.

And by all accounts, he was right ... well, for the most part. Talent-wise, no other team really should have touched the Bulldogs in a year in which the East was more of a punchline than anything else. But that's why they play the games, and Georgia didn't take advantage of the rest of the league's misfortunes, losing to South Carolina and Florida. Those teams finished the regular season with a combined record of 12-11, and Florida will have a new head coach in 2015. The regular season then culminated with a face-palming overtime loss to rival Georgia Tech.

The Bulldogs then watched as third-year SEC darling Missouri -- a team Georgia housed 34-0 on the road -- waltz into Atlanta and lost to Alabama.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia lost Todd Gurley, got him back, then lost him again in a seesaw season. But the Bulldogs can still get a 10th win with a Belk Bowl victory.
So the SEC fell out of the Bulldogs' paws and the College Football Playoff became an afterthought once November got going. Nobody around the Georgia program will say that the 2014 season worked out the way it should have, and 9-3 isn't a record this program envisioned back in August.

But that doesn't mean that getting to 10 wins isn't important, and this team has a lot of pride to play for, especially with their chips down at the moment. A victory in the Belk Bowl over Louisville, which just happens to have old defensive coordinator Todd Grantham on its payroll, on Tuesday would be a big win for a program that has seen more positive days.

It's almost as if the Bulldogs are dealing with a handful of issues all at once. The season ended in tumultuous fashion, but then Georgia lost longtime offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who is now the head coach at Colorado State. Offensive line coach Will Friend will also leave for CSU after the bowl game.

The Internet is also ablaze with rumors concerning the idea of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt leaving after just one year. Oh, and dynamic freshman Isaiah McKenzie has been suspended for the bowl game.

In a season that featured the unceremonious end of stud running back Todd Gurley's career in Athens, getting to 10 wins would be considered a major accomplishment at this point. And it's an accomplishment that should be an important goal for the Bulldogs.

Getting to 10 wins would give Richt nine 10-win seasons during his 14-year tenure in Athens. It would also give the Dawgs at least 10 wins for the third time in the last four years. Ten wins is a feat that rivals Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee didn't even come close to sniffing this season. Ten wins would help in recruiting, and it would inject some momentum into this team heading into the offseason and spring.

There should be plenty of motivation on the Dawgs' sideline this week. Quarterback Hutson Mason, who had the tall task of replacing record-setting starter Aaron Murray, wants to erase some of the pain of that Georgia Tech loss with a win over a solid Louisville squad. There's no doubt that Pruitt would love to win the defensive battle over Grantham, who is no doubt licking his chops at the opportunity to face Georgia's offense. And then there's just the simple fact that Georgia is a program that should enter the 10-win realm because it's, well, Georgia.

Athletic director Greg McGarity has already talked about the importance of 10 wins for the Bulldogs and Richt. What's coming down the tracks in Athens is unknown, but this program needs some momentum going into 2015. There will be a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback taking over. With enough solid talent coming back on both sides, the expectations will continue to be high, but entering 2015 with a more positive outlook internally wouldn't be so bad.

SEC rivalries that need to happen

December, 23, 2014
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With the Allstate Sugar Bowl rekindling a great coaching rivalry in Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer, it got me to thinking (shocker, I know): There are some SEC rivalries that I'd love to see take off in the near future.

What Saban and Meyer did -- and what Saban keeps doing -- in the SEC has changed the landscape of the league. And even though they met just three times in the SEC, we all wanted to watch when they did. So why not have a few games that we all get hyped up for when they come around?

I came up with five games that I want to see turn into or turn back into great rivalries to get your popcorn ready for. Of course, scheduling hurts most of these games, but maybe the right people will hear me out ...

Have a few of your own rivalries you want to see in the SEC? List them below!

1. Alabama vs. Florida: Remember when these two just couldn't stop playing each other in the SEC championship games in the 90s? Remember the Meyer-Saban days? Now, there's another ex-Saban assistant -- Jim McElwain -- coaching the Gators, and a chance of redemption in Gainesville. Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC, just like Florida was in the 90s. Having these guys good at the same time and playing against each other, more often than not, is good for the league.

2. Arkansas vs. Auburn: OK, so these two play every year, but, man, amping up the Gus Malzahn-Bret Bielema storyline would be great. They've both exchanged words with each other, there's been controversy, and they are both the antithesis of each other when it comes to offensive philosophies. This game has the chance to be fun for everyone who cares anything concerned with SEC football. The quiet Malzahn vs. the brash Bielema is too good not to be on everyone's radar each year.

3. Georgia vs. LSU: The Tigers hold a 16-13-1 series lead over Georgia, and that 44-41 Georgia win in 2013 was one for the ages. These two are two of the best in their respective divisions, and should play a lot more than they do, but with the new scheduling format, we have to wait and wait. I mean who wouldn't want to see the laid back Mark Richt in his signature sunglasses taking on the Mad Hatter more? Two very different, yet very successful coaching styles meeting more often just needs to happen.

4. Ole Miss vs. Tennessee: These two went back-and-forth in the 1970s, but Tennessee has dominated the series. However, with Hugh Freeze at the helm in Oxford, this has the chance to be a fun little rivalry to keep an eye on. Why? Well, Freeze coached in the state of Tennessee for more than a decade and can recruit in Butch Jones' backyard when needed. The two played in a lopsided Ole Miss win this year, but with Tennessee trending up with its young talent, these two could have much more competitive games in the future.

5. Missouri vs. Texas A&M: I mean, they were together in the Big 12, and it only makes sense that they ignite those old bitter feelings for each other. Honestly, this game should be played every year because of that. You have two very impressive coaching résumés and two schools that entered the SEC poking their own chests out at the SEC elite. It's been great, so let's get them back on the schedule!

Honorable mention

Auburn vs. Florida: This was one of the great rivalries in the league before it was basically discontinued in 2003. There have been classics in the past and the 2000s brought us some nail-biters in this game, as well. It was sad for both fan bases when this game got cut from both schools' regular schedules, but now Will Muschamp is at Auburn, so hopefully these two can meet while he's still on the Plains.

South Carolina season review

December, 18, 2014
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Following three straight 11-win seasons, South Carolina’s expectations remained high when the Gamecocks opened the 2014 season as a top-10 club. But it became clear early in the season that Steve Spurrier’s club would not live up to that standard.

An unusually porous defense -- the Gamecocks are 91st nationally in total defense, allowing 433.6 yards per game -- was the biggest culprit as South Carolina slipped to 6-6 and fifth in the SEC East. Quarterback Dylan Thompson (SEC-high 3,280 passing yards) and the offense did good work, but the key for the Gamecocks moving forward will be to move back toward the stifling defense that marked their best seasons under Spurrier.

Here is a recap of South Carolina’s season to this point:

Best win: After dropping the season opener 52-28 to Texas A&M, with Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill looking like a Heisman Trophy contender, South Carolina turned around and upset then-No. 6 Georgia two weeks later. The Gamecocks’ porous defense faced first-and-goal at the South Carolina 4 late in the game, but forced Georgia to attempt a 28-yard field goal -- which Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan missed. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt would later lament not handing the ball to Todd Gurley, who ran for 131 yards and a touchdown. South Carolina held onto the ball for the final 4:24 and escaped with a 38-35 victory.

Worst loss: There are some doozies to choose from -- such as the embarrassing opening loss to Texas A&M and an overtime defeat to Tennessee -- but a 45-38 loss at Kentucky probably stands out as the worst. South Carolina held a two-touchdown lead midway through the fourth quarter before Kentucky’s Jojo Kemp (131 yards, 3 TDs) took over and Alvin Dupree scored the game-winning touchdown with a pick-six off a deflection with 2:29 to play. South Carolina’s other losses were at least to bowl teams. The Kentucky loss was when it became absolutely clear that the Gamecocks weren’t very good this year.

Player of the year: A.J. Cann. This was probably not what Cann expected when he opted to return for his senior season, but the Gamecocks’ starting left guard continued to dominate at his position. South Carolina fell well short of its 11-win standard of the previous several seasons, but Cann still played championship-caliber football and might earn attention on some postseason All-America teams in addition to the All-SEC honors he already won from the league’s coaches and media.

Breakout player: Pharoh Cooper. The 5-foot-11 Cooper is emerging as one of the SEC’s most versatile and explosive offensive performers. He leads the Gamecocks with 60 catches for 966 yards and eight touchdowns, plus he ran for 198 yards and two touchdowns and passed for two more touchdowns after taking direct snaps. Cooper even returns punts for the Gamecocks, averaging 5.6 yards per return. Just a sophomore, Cooper is on the cusp of becoming a superstar thanks to the many ways he can impact the game.

Play of the year: Let’s not narrow it to one. Let’s look at three from South Carolina’s 45-42 loss to Tennessee. The Gamecocks might have lost that game, but it was not for lack of effort from Cooper. The sophomore broke a school record with 233 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches.

Here’s his 85-yard touchdown catch that gave the Gamecocks a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.

video

Cooper also took a direct snap and tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds:

video

And he ran 11 yards for South Carolina’s first touchdown.

video 2015 outlook: South Carolina’s offense typically carried the team in 2014, and that group loses a ton of veteran talent after the bowl game. If some underclassmen (like running back Mike Davis) choose to join the seniors in the draft pool, it could be a total rebuilding year on offense, much like what the defense went through this season. Defensive improvement might be the key to a better 2015 for South Carolina, however. Lorenzo Ward’s unit was a huge disappointment this fall, and that young group simply has to play better for South Carolina to contend again in the SEC East.

Georgia season review

December, 16, 2014
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Should it cap the season with a win against Louisville in the Belk Bowl, Georgia (9-3, 6-2 SEC) has a chance to finish in the top 10 in the final polls. But this will go down as another season where the Bulldogs are left to consider what might have been.

What could they have done if star running back Todd Gurley hadn’t missed half the season -- first because of an NCAA eligibility case and later because of a season-ending knee injury? What might have happened if they had finished better in winnable games against South Carolina and Georgia Tech?

An SEC East title and a playoff spot were attainable goals for Georgia this season, so the Bulldogs have to feel some disappointment after the regular season because of their missed opportunities.

Let’s recap:

Best win: Only days after Georgia coach Mark Richt first sat down Gurley about the eligibility issue, the Bulldogs traveled to Missouri and blasted the Tigers 34-0. The Bulldogs picked off four Maty Mauk passes and held Mizzou to 147 yards of total offense, and freshman Nick Chubb proved to be a capable replacement for Gurley, rushing 38 times for 143 yards and a score. Honorable mention goes to Georgia’s 34-7 win against Auburn, when Gurley and Chubb led a rushing attack that accumulated 289 yards. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense also limited Auburn’s explosive offense to 292 total yards.

Worst loss: The circumstances behind Georgia’s 38-20 loss to Florida on Nov. 1 made the loss even more painful. The writing was on the wall that Gators coach Will Muschamp was on his way out, and Florida’s offense seemingly couldn’t do anything right leading into its trip to Jacksonville. But the Gators ran all over Georgia that day, posting 418 rushing yards -- the second most ever against a UGA defense -- en route to an enormous upset of then-No. 9 Georgia. Florida’s win stopped Georgia’s three-game series winning streak, and briefly gave Muschamp hope of staying on as head coach.

Player of year: Chubb. Gurley would have cruised to this honor since he was once the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. But you can’t win for half a season of work. Chubb was a force once the opportunity arrived. With Gurley available for the first five games, Chubb ran just 31 times for 224 yards. Over the final seven games, the freshman ran 155 times for 1,057 yards. Chubb ranks second in the SEC in rushing (1,281 yards), was named SEC Freshman of the Year, and made the first-team All-SEC squad for both the coaches and media.

Breakout player: Isaiah McKenzie. Since we have already discussed Chubb, how about a guy who breathed life into Georgia’s awful return game? Georgia hadn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since the 2011 season when McKenzie took one to the house against Troy. He repeated the feat with a 59-yard runback against Kentucky, on a day when he also took the opening kickoff back 90 yards for a score. At the end of the regular season, the freshman nicknamed "The Human Joystick" because of his slippery moves is averaging 12.1 yards per punt return and 28.1 yards per kickoff return.

Play of year: Instead of narrowing it down to one play, let’s recap five of Gurley’s greatest hits from the season. His UGA career ended in disappointment, but he’ll still go down as one of the greatest Bulldogs running backs ever. Here’s a reminder of why:

A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Clemson.

His 51-yard touchdown run against Tennessee.

A 26-yard run against Tennessee where he hurdled a defender.

When he took a direct snap in the Wildcat and floated a 50-yard pass to tight end Jeb Blazevich against Vanderbilt.

His first touch upon his return from suspension, when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Auburn (although it was called back on a penalty).

2015 outlook: Even without Gurley and some important seniors -- namely linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, cornerback Damian Swann, receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, and quarterback Hutson Mason -- Georgia still has reason for optimism next season. For starters, Richt announced over the weekend that outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and left tackle John Theus will all return. If Georgia can find a consistent replacement for Mason under center, Chubb and the returning skill talent should help the offense remain productive. It’s reasonable to expect the defense to keep improving in Year 2 under Pruitt, as well.
Todd Grantham said he has not communicated with his former co-workers at Georgia in the eight days since learning that his new team, Louisville, will face the Bulldogs in the Dec. 30 Belk Bowl.

On a Monday conversation with reporters, the first-year Louisville defensive coordinator downplayed any competitive advantage he might have gleaned from practicing against most of the Bulldogs’ players over the previous four seasons as a Mark Richt assistant.

“It still gets down to getting off blocks, tackling people, winning one-on-one matchups on both sides of the ball, so I don’t think that’ll play as big a factor as you guys will make it out to be,” Grantham said. “I think it gets down to just playing football. Obviously they’re a talented team. They’re one of the best offenses in the country, so we know we’ve got to play well and be ready for a big challenge.”

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyTodd Grantham's Louisville defense leads the nation in interceptions and is tied for seventh in sacks.
A veteran assistant like Grantham has plenty of experience in situations like this, coaching against friends, former co-workers or ex-players several times each season. While he understands the intrigue surrounding his coaching against a program where he was on staff less than a year ago, Grantham said it doesn’t add extra juice to the bowl game from his perspective.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the people there -- both the coaches and the players,” Grantham said. “This isn’t the first time that a coach has faced a team that he was coaching the year before. It’s part of the business. We’ve had a great season. We went 9-3 and it’s a chance for us to send our seniors out the right way because they really did believe in our system when we came here.”

That they did. Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong left a strong defensive identity behind when he left for Texas after last season, and the Cardinals have thrived in the first season under Grantham’s leadership. Despite losing safety Calvin Pryor and defensive end Marcus Smith to the first round of the NFL draft, Louisville still ranks sixth nationally in total defense, allowing 293.3 yards per game.

Further, the Cardinals lead the nation in interceptions (25), rank fourth in third-down defense (28.2 percent) and are tied for seventh in sacks (3.25 per game). They’re in the top 20 in turnovers gained (T12, 28), scoring defense (18th, 20.5 points per game) and red zone defense (T19, 27 opponent scores in 36 red zone possessions).

Not bad for a first season in a new conference -- and Grantham said it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“Our main focus and vision is to win the ACC and compete for a national title, and after one year here and the recruiting class we’re having, I’m more convinced than ever that we can reach that goal,” Grantham said.

That sounds very much like the sales pitch that Grantham used to make while wearing Georgia’s red and black. Replace ACC with SEC and insert Florida instead of Florida State as the opponent he has circled as the roadblock standing between his team and the championships it wants to win.

Grantham’s tenure at Georgia ended with a bit of a flop -- the young Bulldogs surrendered 29 points and 375.5 yards per game last season -- as fans and media questioned his job security throughout the 2013 season.

“We obviously had a really young team last year and we kind of faced some veteran offenses, some veteran quarterbacks, and because of that, we had to take some shots with those guys, but I think they got better for it,” Grantham recalled. “They were able to mature and I think that’s one of the reasons they’re able to have some success right now.”

Two of those young players, cornerback Shaq Wiggins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, followed Grantham to Louisville and sat out this season as transfers. Grantham credited the former Bulldogs for their work on the scout team and said he expects them to compete for starting jobs in 2015.

As for Georgia, Grantham said he remains proud of what the program accomplished in his four seasons there -- a time where the Bulldogs won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012 and dominated rivals Florida, Georgia Tech, Auburn and Tennessee with an 11-1 record in his final three seasons.

That’s what Grantham said he remembers about his Georgia tenure, not the last season where he came under fire.

“I’ve always known I was a good coach in what I was doing,” Grantham said. “I think if you go back and look at the changes we were able to establish and make at the University of Georgia in my time there, we were able to win games, we were able to put, really, Georgia back on the map from being relevant.”

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