ATHENS - When we did this list last year, the man we're about to talk about was No. 1, the tops, numero uno. This man was considered the most important player for the Georgia football team entering the 2012 season.
So the fact that he's dropped to No. 9, is that a sign of his stock slipping? Absolutely not. This is a ranking of the players according to factors besides their raw natural ability, or their expected productivity. Those two are factors, but what we're mainly doing here is saying: If Georgia is going to have success this year, these are the player, in order, who have to have a good year.
We take into account where Georgia has concerns and weaknesses. We take into account depth. (As in, players that would be really missed if they can’t play.) We cannot predict players having unexpectedly bad years or players coming out of nowhere to do well. Some very good players will not make this list because there is depth at their position, or they project to do as well as they have in the past. And obviously we can't predict injuries.
And No. 9 is ...
9. Malcolm Mitchell
WHY HE’S VITAL: He might be the top playmaker on offense, and that includes the tailbacks. Mitchell is at least the team’s best receiver; just imagine the stats he might have put up his first two seasons if healthy for every game, and not experimenting at cornerback. Mitchell would be higher on this list if the team weren’t so deep at receiver. If he does get hurt again, the team can turn to Michael Bennett, Chris Conley, Rantavious Woooten, Justin Scott-Wesley and other talented players. But Mitchell is the most important of all of them, and critical to the passing game, because of his ability to open it up on every play, whether it’s beating a defender deep or hauling in a shorter pass and taking it home. As long as he’s on the field, Georgia has a guy who can score any time he touches the ball.
QUOTABLE: "If you look at it how I've been doing since I got here, I've really only had freshman year to be at receiver. So this is a chance for me to make a big jump." - Mitchell
BEST CASE: Mitchell stays healthy and puts up gargantuan stats. (If you take his stats last year and spread them out over a full 14 games he would have had 62 catches, 890 yards and six touchdowns. He can do better than even that.) Mitchell not only emerges as a first-team all-SEC player, but scares defenses so much that he draws double coverage and allows Bennett, Conley and others to be stars in their own right. Georgia’s offense sets more records in 2013, with Mitchell playing a huge part.
WORST CASE: He pulls a hamstring at some point again, or half the secondary pulls hamstrings and Todd Grantham lobbies for Mitchell to come back to defense. Those are about the only imaginable ways Mitchell doesn’t have a big junior season. If something did happen to him, it wouldn’t be a back-breaker to the Georgia offense by any means. But it would take away one of Aaron Murray’s best targets, and the only true all-field threat.
FINAL WORD: The only issue for Mitchell, if you haven’t gathered by now, is staying on the field. The bet here is that if he starts every game, the only thing keeping him from a 1,000-yard season is all the other options Murray has on offense. And that means more big things for the Georgia offense.