ORLANDO, Fla. — After closing out a 12-win season with a victory over Nebraska in Tuesday's Capital One Bowl, the Georgia Bulldogs are turning the page with different challenges on each side of the ball.
Georgia will return an overwhelming majority of players from its record-setting offense, but its defense could have as few as three starters back. As a whole, the Bulldogs must guard against complacency and will face a 2013 schedule that contains Clemson, South Carolina and LSU within the first four games.
"We've built a lot of positive momentum this year," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "We talked all year about playing hard and improving every day, and if we take that same mindset in the offseason, we'll have a chance to do some good things. If we let a bunch of people pat us on the back and say we've arrived, then we won't. Whether it's negative or positive talk, you really can't listen to any of it.
"It's going to be a new football team next year with a new identity, and we don't know what that identity is."
Nor does Georgia know who its quarterback will be.
Redshirt junior Aaron Murray, who riddled the Cornhuskers for 427 passing yards and five touchdowns, is deciding whether to enter the NFL draft. Murray is the first quarterback in SEC history to throw for 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, and he would be a cinch to set league records for career yards and touchdowns if he returned.
Should Murray leave, Hutson Mason would step in to guide the Bulldogs, who tallied a school-record 6,547 yards and 529 points. Mason redshirted this season and would certainly have his transition eased by the return of tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome and all five starting linemen.
"We're just on the surface of how good we can be as an offense," Marshall said. "If Murray comes back, there is no telling what we can do."
Said Gurley: "The biggest thing is that our whole offensive line is coming back. That's just going to be real big."
Gurley could begin next season as the focal point of opposing defenses after the 6-foot-1, 218-pounder rushed for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns in his debut year. His average of 6.2 yards per carry topped Herschel Walker's 5.9-yard clip as a Bulldogs freshman in 1980.
Defensively, only cornerback Damian Swann, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera and end Garrison Smith could return from the starting lineup that struggled against Nebraska before playing well late. Junior inside linebacker Alec Ogletree announced after the bowl that he is forgoing his final year, and two-time All-America outside linebacker Jarvis Jones is expected to do the same.
Junior noseguard Kwame Geathers also could leave early, as did older brothers Robert and Clifton.
"We're going to be young, but I think we've got talented enough guys to make plays for us," Swann said.
Freshman outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins didn't start the bowl but made six starts, but the rest of the defensive lineup could consist of the developing likes of end Ray Drew, outside linebacker Josh Dawson, cornerback Devin Bowman and safeties Corey Moore and Josh Harvey-Clemons.
"It's going to be fun, because these seniors who are leaving kind of went through this a few years ago," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "This game wasn't going great, but we found a way to win it and showed more mental and physical toughness in the second half to win. That's why you win 12 games in a year, and we have to take these guys coming up and develop their mental and physical toughness to win games.
"In this league, the bottom line is winning and losing, and you do that by playing every snap as hard as you can."
Georgia entered the Nebraska game ranked No. 5 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 6 in the Associated Press poll. The Bulldogs should finish in the top five in at least one of those polls, which would be a first for the program since 2007.
Not that athletic director Greg McGarity needs rankings to gauge where Mark Richt's program stands.
"We are now at another level of respectability where there is no question the nation looks at us a little bit differently than they did before the Alabama game because of the way we competed toe-to-toe," McGarity said. "So now we have to work twice as hard. We've got six home games next season, and three of our first four games are Clemson away, South Carolina at home and LSU at home -- highly ranked teams that will be coming back with experienced offenses.
"We've got some rebuilding to do on defense, and I'm confident Coach Grantham and his staff will have that group ready to go, but we are starting off really tough next year, so we've got to have a great offseason."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...