We thus arrive at the end of our list. The suspense must have been killing all of you.
Yes, it is Hutson Mason. Why not Todd Gurley? The short answer is that Gurley has Keith Marshall, Brendan Douglas and a couple five-star tailbacks behind him. Mason has unproven youngsters.
The longer answer is below. And I have also included a Q&A on my decisions in compiling this list. Hopefully it answers some of the many questions I expect you have.
Before we go on, a reminder that this is not a ranking of the team's best players. It is a look at the players who are most vital to the team's success. That takes into account the team's strengths and weaknesses, the depth at certain positions, and the importance of each position.
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And now, finally ...
1. HUTSON MASON
WHY HE’S VITAL: Well, he’s the quarterback. And despite his game experience at the end of last year, it’s still to fair to wonder how good Mason will be in presumably a full season as the starter. Last year when we did this list Aaron Murray was also No. 1, but it was mainly because he was the quarterback. Murray was a known quantity. Mason gave Georgia fans reason for optimism, leading the comeback win at Georgia Tech, and throwing for more than 300 yards in the Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska. But his pocket presence caused some concerns. So Mason went to work on that in the offseason and spring, and by all accounts he had a strong spring, not throwing a single interception. Is that indicative of how he’ll play when the games count? Who knows. Mason will face a stiff test right away in a Clemson defense that is expected to be very strong, and South Carolina should be pretty good too, even without Jadeveon Clowney. But as Mark Richt has pointed out, Mason will have the benefit of an elite supporting cast, headlined by Todd Gurley.
QUOTABLE: “He’s one of those guys who this time next year people will be like, Whoa, I knew Hutson was good but I didn’t think he was gonna be that good. My expectations for him are high. With the guys coming back on defense, and knock on wood with injuries, and the inured guys coming back healthy, I think he’ll max the single-season numbers that Murray was putting up. He’s a guy who’s a gunslinger, he’s not afraid to make a big play, when it might not be the safe play. I think that’s what’s going to catapult Hutson into a lot of things next year.” – former teammate Arthur Lynch
BEST CASE: Stat-wise Mason turns out to be D.J. Shockley Part II, and win-wise he is Tee Martin Part II. The worth proves the wait for Mason, who puts up similar numbers to Murray ‘s junior season (3,893 passing yards, 36 TD, 10 INT), and leads the Bulldogs to glory in the SEC championship and College Football Playoff.
WORST CASE: Mason’s season goes similar to the last Georgia senior QB getting his first season as a starter: In 2009, Joe Cox passed for 2,584 yards and 24 touchdowns, but also had 15 interceptions, and that was with A.J. Green and several other future NFL receivers and tight end on the roster.
FINAL WORD: Mason is embracing the Martin and Shockley comparisons. And while plenty of other one-year starters have failed, most signs point to Mason being able to succeed There’s just too much other talent around him, and Mason is personally talented enough that Mark Richt and Mike Bobo gave him a redshirt year two years ago, setting up this final year. The worst-case scenario could always happen. But Cox also didn’t have Gurley. The bet here is it comes down to the play of the offensive line: If it is at least a shade improved, that will be enough to give Mason the time to win games.
BLOG BONUS: Expected FAQ
Now that the list is complete, I’ve anticipated a few of your questions, so here are my anticipatory answers:
1. Isn’t the defense the big concern? So why is the top of the list dominated by offensive players?
Because there are so many questions on defense that it’s hard to pinpoint which guys will end up the most important. Swann and Moore are the most likely to be important factors in the secondary, so they made the list. But also keep an eye on sophomore J.J. Green, the favorite to start at the star, and new players Malkom Parrish, Dominick Sanders and Shattle Fenteng.
It’s a good bet that at the end of the season, a re-ranking will include one or two of those defensive backs who didn’t make this original list. But predicting who right now is difficult.
2. What about other newcomers, namely Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Jeb Blazevich?
The latter three will have to battle for playing time. Carter is one who arguably could be on this list – but Georgia is in pretty good shape at the edge rusher position, so it’s not vital that Carter come in and make an instant impact. (Although he very well might.)
3. Where were Chris Conley and Michael Bennett?
The two senior receivers are two of Georgia’s top 10 players, in my opinion. But this list was not that. I hate to put it in this almost callous way, but if either Conley or Bennett were hurt, the offense and the passing game could survive. If BOTH of them got hurt, then yes, it would be in trouble. So I guess I could have kind of cheated and combined the two, as I did with inside linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson. But the difference there is that the inside linebacker reserves are very unproven, unlike at receiver.
You can probably throw Jay Rome in here too. He’s likely to be an impact guy at tight end this year, but Mason has a plethora of passing options.
4. Could Keith Marshall have made this list too, as his performance could provide much-needed rest for Gurley, and Marshall could have a big impact in his own right?
5. Nobody from the defensive line
Ray Drew and Sterling Bailey could end up with good numbers this year. Chris Mayes could emerge as a star at nose tackle. But the defensive line overall is pretty deep, and it was pretty hard to pick out even one and put them on this list.
6. Who else do you see as potentially very important, depending on circumstances?
Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey, in the event of an injury to you-know who. Greg Pyke and whoever wins the other guard spot. Kolton Houston.
That’s the fun thing about the season: Things happen you can’t predict. Here was my list last year:
1. Aaron Murray
2. Todd Gurley
3. Amarlo Herrera
4. Damian Swann
5. Jordan Jenkins
6. Josh Harvey-Clemons
7. Tray Matthews
8. Marshall Morgan
9. Malcolm Mitchell
10. John Theus