Yes, Mark Richt, Georgia Football Will Be Elite in 2013

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 14, 2013

Georgia head coach Mark Richt
Georgia head coach Mark RichtDaniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

SEC pride is real, and it's important. 

The chants of "S-E-C" coming from the southeastern part of the United States on Jan. 7, as Alabama was putting the finishing touches on its 42-14 dismantling of Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game, gave the conference its seventh straight national title and kept the perception that the SEC is the top conference in college football alive and well.

But in Athens, Ga., it was bittersweet.

Had Georgia gained five more yards in the SEC Championship Game and knocked off Alabama, it could have been the Bulldogs hoisting the crystal football in Miami Gardens, Fla., instead of the Crimson Tide.

Instead, the Bulldogs settled for a Capital One Bowl matchup with Nebraska, where junior quarterback Aaron Murray lit up the Big Ten's top pass defense to the tune of 427 passing yards and five touchdowns.

With Murray back, Georgia will likely land in the Top 10 in many preseason rankings. But are the Bulldogs truly an "elite" team?

“We plan on being that," Richt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week during his wrap-up chat with reporters. "We hope to be that. We’ve got to earn that. No one really knew what was going to happen this past season."

His plans will likely come to fruition.

Murray's return solidifies an offense that is going to be dangerous in 2013. Running back Todd Gurley—who led all SEC running backs with 1,385 yards in 2012—will be back, along with fellow rising sophomore Keith Marshall. 

Malcolm Mitchell, who finished last season as Georgia's second-leading receiver despite limited action on offense during the first four games, has "star" written all over him. The emergence of Chris Conley down the stretch and the return of Michael Bennett from his ACL injury should make the receiving corps one of the best in the SEC.

With five starters returning on the offensive line, Georgia should be able to move the ball up and down the field.

The question is on defense, where four defensive linemen, two star linebackers and four productive members of the secondary have either exhausted their eligibility or announced they are leaving early for the NFL.

But here's the dirty little secret that nobody is talking about: Georgia's defense wasn't all that it was cracked up to be in 2012, and the Bulldogs still managed to put themselves on the national championship doorstep.

They finished sixth in the SEC in total defense with 357.8 yards per game and 12th in the SEC in rush defense with 182.14 yards per game.

Georgia's defense was successful because it finished 20th in the country in turnover margin, gaining 0.79 turnovers per game. When you have a potent offense, all you have to be is opportunistic on defense.

The Bulldogs proved that in 2012. If they can repeat the feat in 2013, they'll be right back in the national championship discussion.