SEC Countdown: No. 3 Georgia

Our SEC preseason countdown continues with No. 3 Georgia. Can the Bulldogs still effectively move the football on offense without the SEC's all-time leading passer, Aaron Murray? Can Georgia's defense improve enough to overcome a young and inexperienced secondary?

Georgia running back Todd Gurley could lead the SEC in rushing, and if all goes well could be in the Heisman hunt. But for the Dawgs to win the SEC and compete for a national title, he'll need help.

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To Georgia fans, it doesn't matter what happened last season. So what if this team was decimated by injuries, or had a rough time on defense? No one cares that one of the most prolific passers in SEC history is gone.

What Georgia fans want to know from head coach Mark Richt is simple: How can the Dawgs win an SEC title, and ultimately end up in the new four-team playoff for a national title?

In 13 seasons, a Richt-led Georgia team has never missed a bowl game, has always been ranked, at some point during the season, in the top 25 and eight times won at least 10 games in a season. Contrary to that success, since 2001 Georgia has played in five SEC Championship Games, but only won two. And the Dawgs haven't played for a national title since 1982, and haven't won one since 1980.

Last season might not matter, but Georgia is haunted by the fact that the big game has eluded it for so long.

The Dawgs don't have the feel of a national title contender right now, but they're right outside the door, ready to kick it down. FOX Sports South takes a look at the Georgia Bulldogs, our preseason No. 3 pick among the 14 SEC teams:

WHO'S BACK

When it comes to returning players that can make an impact in 2014, Georgia is loaded in three spots: running back, wide receiver and linebacker.

Todd Gurley leads a talented running backs corps that includes Keith Marshall. Gurley finished fourth in the SEC with a 98.9 yards per game average, and only played in 10 games. Marhsall offers an exlosiveness that reminds of Gurley, and can also rough it up in between the tackles.

Georgia has a depth chart of receivers that would make most coaches drool. The Dawgs return three seniors and two juniors, all of whom can make plays and change games. Chris Conley and Michael Bennett led this team last season as injuries took their toll. Add Jonathan Rumph to that mix, as well as Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley when they're cleared to retun to action, and this corps can be deadly in 2014.

The best unit on this team might be the linebackers. Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson led the SEC with 133 tackles last season, and Amarlo Herrera was third with 112. They'll still be roaming the inside of Georgia's defense, while Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins will play at outside linebacker. The duo of Floyd and Jenkins both finished in the top 15 in sacks last season in the SEC, and Floyd has the upside to not only lead the conference in 2014, but the country too.

WHO'S GONE/WHO'S NEXT

While the loss of tight end Arthur Lynch to the NFL, and safety Tray Matthews (dismissed from the team) will hurt, no loss will be felt more than the departure of quarterback Aaron Murray.

Murray finished his four-year career at Georgia as the all-time SEC leader in completions (921), passing yards (13,166) and touchdown passes (121). He was the unquestioned leader of this team, and won't be easily replaced. That said, redshirt senior Hutson Mason has the skills to make the loss of Murray manageable.

Mason showed up in five games last season and started two after Murray tore his ACL. He threw for 968 yards and five scores (808 yards, four touchdowns and two picks after taking over from Murray), and has one full season to cram an entire college career onto his resume. Mason has a strong arm, a gunslinger's mentality and a complete grasp of the playbook, all qualities that will help him keep Georgia's offense on track.

SPOTLIGHT

While it would be natural to focus on Mason as a first-year, full-time quarterback, or the lack of depth in the secondary, spotlights are for superstars. There isn't a bigger superstar running back in college football than Gurley.

Gurley is a complete-package back, a physical, bowl-over-tacklers runner who can also make people miss with a change of direction or his elusive quickness. Not only can Gurley brutalize a defense while running the ball, he's extremely effective in the passing game, especially when he catches passes in the flat and exploits mismatches with linebackers.

While he missed three games to injury, Gurley still ran for 989 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. He added 37 catches and six scores through the air. If he can stay healthy in 2014, a Heisman Trophy isn't out of the question.

THIS SEASON WILL BE A SUCCESS IF ...

While Gurley is absolutely the most recognizable player on this Georgia roster, the success of the Dawgs in 2014 doesn't solely rest on his shoulders. If success is measured by a 10-win season, Georgia could get there with Gurley being just good, not great.

But this fan base is played out with good, not great seasons in Athens.

For the Dawgs to make it to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship Game, for Georgia to have a legitmate shot at a national title, four things have to happen--two on offense and two on defense.

On offense, a relatively unheralded offensive line must gel immediately, and offer protection for a new quarterback while opening holes for Gurley and Marshall. Speaking of new quarterbacks, Mason doesn't have to put this team on his shoulders, but he has to avoid mistakes. With the talent around him at the skill positions, Mason can't get caught up in trying to do too much.

On defense, the Dawgs must tackle more effeciently in 2014 than they did a year ago. Too many big plays happened after missed tackles, and Georgia won't survive if that's a problem again. Georgia's young secondary must step up this season. There might not be a more make-or-break unit in the SEC than the defensive backfield in Athens.

If the secondary can show a marked improvement from 2014, there aren't too many teams in the country that can beat Georgia.

GAME TO CIRCLE ON SCHEDULE

Sept. 13 vs. South Carolina: Of course Georgia's first contest of the season will be a much-anticipated rematch with the Clemson Tigers. And boy do the Dawgs want revenge for that 38-35 loss last August. While that will be a fantastic game, it means little compared to Georgia's second game.

After the Clemson game comes a bye week for Georgia, then the Dawgs travel to SEC East rival South Carolina. The winner of this game will be in the driver's seat for a trip to Atlanta to represent the division against the West winner for an SEC title.

In addition to the postseason implications Georgia's game against South Carolina holds, tuning in on Sept. 13 also gives the country a look at two of the most prolific running backs in college football: Gurley from Georgia and Mike Davis from South Carolina. Both rushers are preseason Heisman Trophy hopefuls.

PREDICTION: 11-1, 7-1 IN SEC

The Georgia schedule has four potential roadblocks that could be categorized as serious, two at the beginning of the season and two near the end.

Out of the gate, the Dawgs will host Clemson, and then travel to take on the Gamecocks. Those are the two best teams in the state of South Carolina, and two of the best in the Southeast. It's of vital importance that Georgia has at least a 1-1 record after its first two games, and if there is a loss, preferably it's to the out-of-conference opponent.

There's a good shot though, that Georgia emerges 2-0 from its daunting start to the schedule and can cruise to a 7-0 record before playing a neutral-site game against the Florida Gators. That Nov. 1 matchup in Jacksonville, Fla. is the third potential roadblock for the Dawgs, but a game they should win.

Georgia's final stumbling point to a perfect season will happen two weeks after its games against the Gators. The Dawgs will host the Auburn Tigers on Nov. 15 for what will likely be their toughest game to date. Even a loss here to Auburn won't hurt too much, as long as Georgia hasn't fallen prior.

But if Georgia has lost to either South Carolina or Florida, or been upset anywhere else along its SEC schedule, beating Auburn will become absolutely necessary if the Dawgs have national title hopes.