New quarterback, new coordinator, but an even better Georgia?

Georgia running back Nick Chubb was very good at doing this last season. Expect to see more of it this year. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

COLUMBIA — Tailback Todd Gurley is on his way to stardom in the NFL, receiver Michael Conley leapt (quite literally) from the combine into the professional ranks, and Hutson Mason has finished his time as Georgia’s quarterback. So why do we get the feeling the Bulldogs could be even better this year?

Perhaps that comes from the human wrecking ball that is Nick Chubb, slamming through defenses after Gurley’s knee injury left the rising sophomore as Georgia’s primary rushing option. Perhaps that comes from a defense which improved substantially last year in its first season under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Perhaps that comes from the suspicion that UGa won’t throw the ball at the goal line anymore.

Of course, that’s just what happened last year in Columbia, and the resulting intentional grounding penalty helped USC steal a victory which in hindsight seems an outlier in both teams’ 2014 campaigns. Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards in eight starts last year after Gurley went down. Get ready to see a whole lot of Nick, and expect Georgia to be as formidable as ever despite the unknown behind center. ESPN ranked the Bulldogs No. 8 in its (admittedly very) early top 25.

Pruitt’s defense has a lot to do with that. Georgia lost some key pieces, but the Bulldogs signed a recruiting class heavy on vaunted defensive linemen. And last season set a tremendous baseline, given that Georgia finished with a top-20 defense and a plus-16 turnover margin that ranked fourth nationally. Pruitt has five starters back from a defense that held Missouri and Auburn to a combined seven points.

All of which makes that outcome on a rainy night in Columbia last season seem more and more strange. If it comes down to another goal-line play this Sept. 19 at Sanford Stadium, everybody knows who’s getting the ball

Head coach: Mark Richt (136-48 in 14 seasons at Georgia and overall)

Returning starters: 11 (six offense, five defense)

2014 record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC, second in SEC East)

Scoring offense: 41.3 points scored per game (eighth nationally)

Scoring defense: 20.7 points allowed per game (16th nationally)

Series: Georgia leads 47-17-2

Opposing beat writer: Chip Towers, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (@ChipTowersAJC)

Last meeting: South Carolina won 38-35 on Sept. 14, 2014 at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecocks — and to be fair, Georgia’s play-calling — kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone on a late first-and-goal from the 4, and Marshall Morgan missed a tying field-goal attempt that clinched USC’s fourth win in five games over its border-state rival.

1. The QB battle will stretch into summer. Like South Carolina, the Bulldogs also haven’t named a starting signal-caller for their season opener. With Mason gone, the competition is between sophomore Brice Ramsey, junior Faton Bauta, and Virginia grad transfer Greyson Lambert. Goose Creek’s Jacob Park left the team earlier this month. Ramsey was Mason’s backup last season, but Richt has said there is “no question” the battle will continue in preseason camp.

2. Bobo is gone, Schottenheimer is in. Mike Bobo, whose call for a pass at the goal like late in the USC game produced the intentional grounding call which helped change the outcome, is now the head coach at Colorado State, replacing new Florida head man Jim McElwain. The new OC in Athens is Brian Schottenheimer, who played for Steve Spurrier at Florida, and is back in the college game for the first time in 15 years.

3. Not all the big losses were on offense. The Bulldogs also said goodbye to inside linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera, who combined for 470 tackles over the last two years, including Wilson’s SEC-leading 133 stops in 2013 and Herrera’s team-leading 115 tackles last year. They’re two of six departed starters on defense, including standout cornerback Damian Swann.

Week before: Kentucky

Next week: Central Florida comes to Columbia

On the horizon: Revisiting the birthplace of the Miracle