Georgia Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt talks to the media during the SEC football media days Thursday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham, Ala. (USA Today: Marvin Gentry).
HOOVER, Ala. — SEC Media Days never lack in anything to talk about.
So the release of the media’s predictions for the order of finish the conference’s East and West divisions only gave Georgia head coach Mark Richt and three Bulldogs players more to address on the event’s final day Thursday at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-Winfrey Hotel.
Georgia was picked to finish second in the SEC East behind South Carolina, an order that will be put to an early test when the two teams square off Sept. 13 in Columbia, S.C. — the Bulldogs’ SEC opener, while the Gamecocks open conference play, and the season, Aug. 28 at home against Texas A&M.
While using his usual diplomatic manner in discussing the media members’ choice, Richt did admit that he begged to differ with them.
“Obviously, what’s important is what happens at the end of the year,” Richt said. “Earlier, I got asked that question. I said, ‘I’m not happy to be named No. 2. I’m not going to start cheering that we’re No. 2.’ I think in the end, (the SEC East champion) is going to be Georgia.
“Now that I think about it, that’s good. I don’t really care where we’re picked. I think the one year, 2005 (when Georgia won the SEC East and championship game), we were picked fourth or fifth in the East.”
The Bulldog players were a little less diplomatic when the subject of South Carolina came up, though not as much on the media’s prediction as on the team’s last trip to Columbia two years ago.
Georgia took a 35-7 beating that night at Williams-Brice Stadium, a game not forgotten by several of the Bulldog upperclassmen.
“South Carolina. That’s the game we’re looking for,” senior inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “Two years ago we played there, and it didn’t turn out so well. So we have a little revenge (in mind), and we’re ready to go over there and handle business.”
Of course, as important as the clash at South Carolina is likely to be in the grand scheme of the 2014 season in the SEC East, and perhaps beyond, there are other things on the minds of the Bulldogs as the beginning of preseason practice approaches in just over two weeks.
Aside from the little matter of the season opener against Clemson on Aug. 30 at Sanford Stadium, they must find replacements for several key players lost to various reasons, in some cases graduation (like former offensive lineman and Buford grad Dallas Lee), others dismissals and transfers (like defensive backs Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews) and still others to the NFL Draft (chiefly, quarterback Aaron Murray).
It’s the latter that many of the questions directed at Richt and the players dealt with Thursday — more specifically, his anointed replacement, Hutson Mason.
The 6-foot-3, 202-pound redshirt senior enters his first season as the Bulldogs’ starter after sitting three-plus years behind Murray, a three-time All-SEC selection and holder of four conference career passing records.
Mason’s situation mirrors another former Georgia quarterback who was stuck behind an entrenched starter for three years.
And Richt and the Bulldogs are hopeful Mason can have similar results that D.J. Shockley did when emerging from the shadow of South Gwinnett grad and three-time All-SEC selection David Greene, and leading Georgia to the aforementioned 2005 SEC title.
“He’s really sacrificed a lot for this team,” Richt said of Mason. “He’s staying because he loves Georgia, and he especially loves his teammates. But he also knew that this season was going to come, and he’s going to be surrounded by a lot of skill guys, a lot of great backs, receivers, some veteran linemen, a defense that should be matured from a year ago.
“I think the stage is set for him to have a tremendous senior year, and hopefully have the same success, or even a little better than D.J. had.”
True, Mason has a talented supporting cast surrounding him like Shockley did, including running back Todd Gurley, who is expected to be a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, veteran receivers like Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Malcolm Mitchell — the latter coming off a season-ending knee injury from last year — and linemen like Wesleyan grad David Andrews and Buford grad Konnor Houston.
And like Shockley, Mason did get some experience playing with that supporting cast in big situations after Murray was injured in last season’s SEC finale with Kentucky, which Conley believes will help the transition.
“Aaron will hate me for saying this, but Hutson is taller,” Conley said. “That’s one difference. But there are not too many differences. Both have tones of experience, they both know the offense to a tee.
“Hutson’s definitely a different kind of player, but I don’t think there will be any drop off in his game play.”
Besides Mason, there are other personnel changes from last year that go even beyond the players, with defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and two other new defensive coaches preparing for their first season with Georgia after going through spring practice, three months ago.
Between the new look on the field and the sidelines, Conley said there is definitely a new attitude in Athens as preseason practice approaches.
“There were a lot of changes that happened,” Conley said. “A lot of people who were at Georgia, who are not there anymore. I think it was kind of a statement to say we’re going to do things the Georgia way.”