JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Georgia’s “one dream” theme for its 2013 season was centered on getting to the national title game in Pasadena.
Instead, as it unfolded, it became about other things never imagined that it will be remembered for: a slew of injuries to offensive playmakers, a bunch of close games and a tipped pass that became an improbable touchdown against the Bulldogs.
The offense poured on the points again nearly at school-record pace. The defense gave up too many points and big plays in the passing game as it relied heavily on youth. Special teams breakdowns were calamitous.
As the Bulldogs head into the offseason after a 24-19 upset loss to Nebraska Wednesday in the Gator Bowl, players and coaches preached about making the small fixes so another 8-5 season or something similar won’t be in store in 2014.
“This team, we just had a lot of things go wrong and a lot of things go wrong at the worse time imaginable,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “If we could just fix the little things, it’s not all big things, it’s just the minor things that determines how you’re season will be. If everyone’s on the same page, those things like a muffed punt doesn’t happen or a mismatched coverage doesn’t happen. I feel like we have to work on our fundamentals this offseason and work on doing every little thing right.”
That message is similar to what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will deliver to his unit after it held the Cornhuskers to just 307 yards, 99 of which came on a third-quarter touchdown pass. Safety Quincy Mauger and cornerback Shaq Wiggins, both freshmen, were in coverage.
“Learn from your mistakes and know that the details matter,” Grantham said. “You’re not freshmen anymore and try to pay attention to the little things.”
Georgia’s already wild season that began with a preseason No. 5 ranking was rocked by a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds to go on a tipped pass by safety Josh Harvey-Clemons in a 43-38 loss at Auburn on Nov. 16.
Of Georgia’s five losses, all but Missouri were decided by five points or fewer.
“The difference is like this every year,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said holding his thumb and forefinger inches apart. “It’s hard to win any game, much less the championship. You’ve just got to keep knocking on the door.”
Said tight end Arthur Lynch: “Disciplined football is what you need to do to go undefeated and play in the national championship and we couldn’t do that this season.”
The Bulldogs figure to look similar when spring practices begin in advance of coach Mark Richt’s 14th season at Georgia.
Barring a surprise, Georgia won’t lose an underclassman to the NFL draft. Every starter on defense returns except for defensive lineman Garrison Smith.
By the fall, Georgia’s offense will be bolstered by the return of injured receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall, who all were lost to season-ending ACL injuries. The Bulldogs still set a program record with 484.2 yards per game and its 36.7 points per game was about a point behind the record set in 2012.
SEC-record setting quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, but rising senior Hutson Mason already got two starts under his belt after Murray was injured. He passed for 808 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions after moving into the No. 1 role against Kentucky.
“Knock on wood, those injured guys get back healthy, I don’t see any reason for Hutson not to match the single-season numbers that Murray was putting up,” Lynch said.
Lynch and offensive line starters Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee depart the offense, but plenty of talent remains at the skill positions led by tailback Todd Gurley, who nearly rushed for 1,000 yards despite missing three games with a sprained ankle that bothered him the rest of the season.
Marshall Morgan, who has emerged as of the nation’s top kickers, returns after making 22 of 24 field goals.
Georgia only has one mid-year enrollee — quarterback Jacob Park from Goose Creek, S.C. — after having a program-record 13 last year.
“I just told all the seniors that their watch begins now,” Richt said after the Gator Bowl loss. “Told the future seniors of 2014 that their job begins right this minute, starts with thinking of ways to get better, starts with doing everything on an individual basis to get better and find ways to get your teammates to get better, as well.”
Mason will now have to take over the mantle of leading the offense in the months ahead.
Bobo said he’s got a better sense now of Mason can bring and Mason has a better handle on what he can do.
“Those two and a half games are going to help him tremendously,” Bobo said. “He’s got a feel for me and I’ve got a feeling for what he likes and we’ve got to go to work.”
The secondary needs the most fixing, where Georgia is counting on players such as Harvey-Clemons, Wiggins, Mauger, Tray Matthews, Corey Moore and Damian Swann to show vast improvement.
“There’s going to be a big competition on the back end to see who can do the things we need to do to win,” Grantham said.
Georgia wanted a win to give it momentum heading into the offseason, but the Bulldogs reached the SEC title game in 2011 and 2012 coming off bowl losses the previous seasons.
“You move on it from it,” Gurley said. “We’ve got plenty of workouts, plenty of mat drills, plenty of days in camp so by the time you get done with all that, you’ll forget about this game.”
That doesn’t mean that others, especially the defense, won’t carry with it the tough lessons learned from this season.
Jenkins said Georgia will be ready to “prove the world wrong,” by being able to “dominate.”
The Bulldogs weren’t close to that this season when they allowed an average of 29.0 points per game, a program record, and 375.5 yards per game, the most since 1999. Those points weren’t all on the defense. Opponents scored 66 points off 22 turnovers.
The new four-team college football playoff debuts in the 2014 season, but Gurley isn’t getting too far ahead when asked about expectations for the team.
“Just to go out there and win the first game, man,” Gurley said of the Aug. 30 opener against Clemson in Athens. “That’s all I’m worried about, winning the first game.”