When wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell tore his ACL trying to celebrate Georgia's first touchdown of the season, the tone for the season was set. Like Nebraska, Georgia's offense has been decimated by injuries. Fellow receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, running back Keith Marshall, and quarterback Aaron Murray also suffered season ending ACL injuries. Running back Todd Gurley, and receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with injuries. The result of that is a team that was expected to contend for a conference title ended up with four losses.
Two of the losses in midseason can be pinned to the absence of both Gurley and Marshall. A third loss was the result of that fluke "Hail Mary" by Auburn, where Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped a 4th-and-18 desperation Hail Mary pass into the hands of Auburn's Ricardo Louis for a 73 yard game winning touchdown. A fifth loss was averted when backup quarterback Hutson Mason shook off early nerves and slow reads to mount a 20 point comeback late for a double overtime victory over Georgia Tech.
Mason, a 6'3" 202 pound junior, has completed nearly 65% of his passes this season, the majority of which came after Murray's injury against Kentucky the weekend before Thanksgiving. In his one start against Georgia Tech, he completed 22 of 36 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Mason is not much of a threat to run; he's rushed for a net of ten yards in his career. If Mason goes down, his backup is 6'3" 216 pound redshirt freshman Faton Bauta, who hasn't thrown a pass in two games as a backup.
But the key to Georgia's offense has to be running back Todd Gurley. It's no coincidence that three of Georgia's losses occurred when Gurley was injured. The 6'1" 232 pound sophomore is considered by ESPN's Todd McShay to be the #4 prospect for the NFL Draft in 2015 and beyond. He's rushed for 903 yards and 10 touchdowns despite missing parts or the entirety of five games due to injury. In overtime against Georgia Tech, Gurley got the ball on every play, rushing for 50 yards and two touchdowns after regulation. Nagging injuries have bothered him throughout the second half of the season, and a few weeks rest has him feeling better than he has since August. With Marshall out, Gurley has been backed up by true freshmen J.J. Green (5'9" 183 pounds) and Brendan Douglas (5'11" 202 pounds). Both have been solid; Green rushed for 129 yards against Tennessee while Douglas rushed for 70 and 84 against Missouri and Vanderbilt when Gurley was out, even if they weren't as dominating as Gurley.
In the absence of Mitchell and Scott-Wesley, junior wide receiver Chris Conley (6'3" 206 pounds) emerged as the leading Bulldog in the receiving corps. You remember Conley from the second half of the Capital One Bowl, where he caught a 49 yard touchdown pass to tie the game and an 87 yard touchdown pass to seal the victory for Georgia. This season, Conley has caught 42 passes for 605 yards and four touchdowns. He missed two games with a sprained ankle in October, which he reinjured on Friday. He missed Saturday's practice for treatment, and is probably questionable for Wednesday's game. Junior Michael Bennett (6'2" 205 pounds) has caught 39 passes for 483 yards and four touchdowns as well. He missed two games after minor knee surgery in October; he missed the Capital One Bowl last year after an ACL injury. Senior Rantavious Wooten (5'10" 176 pounds) came off the bench in October to fill the injury void to catch 30 passes for 344 yards and five touchdowns in the latter part of the season. Senior tight end Arthur Lynch (6'5" 254 pounds) earned first team all-SEC honors after catching 24 passes for 390 yards and five touchdowns this season. His backup, sophomore Jay Rome, is out of the game, recovering from ankle surgery earlier this month.
The stable part of the Georgia offense was the offensive line, where senior left tackle Kenarious Gates (6'5" 327 lbs.), junior center David Andrews (6'2" 295 lbs.), and senior right guard Chris Burnette (6'2" 314 lbs) started every game. The only rotation has been at right tackle, where 6'5" 280 pound junior Kolton Houston has rotated with 6'6" 298 pound sophomore John Theus this season. There are no stars amongst this group (none earned postseason honors), but it's a solid group nonetheless.
After seven Georgia defenders went in the NFL draft, growing pains were expected. The youth movement was almost like Nebraska's, as six freshman started a game at some point this season. The lone senior starting is nose tackle Garrison Smith (6'3" 297 pounds) who ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 58.
Junior linebackers Ramik Wilson (6'3" 234 lbs) and Amarlo Herrera (6'2" 245 lbs) lead the Bulldogs in tackles with 128 and 107 respectively. Wilson's total also leads the SEC, and that earned him first-team all-SEC honors. On Saturday, he announced that he planned to return to Georgia for his senior season. But when the coaches named their defensive player of the year, they chose Herrera, who made all of the calls on defense.
Georgia frequently uses five defensive backs, with sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons being utilized as a nickel back akin to Eric Hagg's role as the "peso" in 2010. But Harvey-Clemons is suspended for the Gator Bowl , along with sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson. Harvey-Clemons ranks third on the Bulldogs in tackles with 66 despite missing the season opener due to a suspicion for a drug-related violation in the spring. That won't help an embattled secondary that was the weakest part of the Bulldog defense. Would Georgia move junior cornerback Damian Swann (5'11" 189 lbs) back to nickel? Swann exceled in that role last season, but struggled transitioning to cornerback this season. The Bulldogs do get back freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins (5'10" 175 lbs, concussion) and freshman safety Tray Matthews (6'0" 214 lbs, shoulder and hamstring) from injuries that held them out of the season finale against Georgia Tech.
How should Nebraska try to attack Georgia? Nebraska had some success running the ball last season against Georgia, and with the offensive line back except for Spencer Long, you'd like to think that would be a matchup to exploit. That would then take the pressure off of Tommy Armstrong and open up the play-action passing game against that vulnerable secondary. Defensively, it's clear: stop Todd Gurley on the ground. That's easier said than done, though.