Thursday October 8th, 2015 4:13PM

Murray will lead the way once again, as Dogs chase SEC crown

By The Associated Press
ATHENS -- Aaron Murray is on pace to leave Georgia with most of the school's major passing records.

After two straight runner-up finishes, he's hoping to also finish with a Southeastern Conference championship.

One look at a leaner Murray shows he's serious about his last SEC title chase. After making the decision to return for his senior season, Murray visited the school nutritional staff and laid out a diet plan that resulted in a loss of about 10 pounds and a reduction in his body fat from 14 to 9 percent.

No junk food. No fast food. Not even his favorite watermelon-flavored Sour Patch candy.

But before Murray started slimming down, the Georgia offense was explosive - and it should be again.

Tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall return after combining for 2,144 yards and 25 touchdowns as freshmen. All five starters on the offensive line are back, and wide receiver Michael Bennett has recovered from a knee injury to join Malcolm Mitchell and tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome as Murray's top targets.

The big question is the defense, which returns only four starters.

It's a reversal from a year ago, when the defense was packed with returning starters but the offensive line and running backs were unproven.

"Last offseason everyone was asking me was the offense going to be any good because we lost so many guys," Murray said. "We had a great year offensively. I think the defense is the same way. They got better and better in spring practice and I think they looked awesome in the summer. I look forward to them having a great year."

Georgia has won two SEC titles with coach Mark Richt, but eight years have passed since the last championship in 2005. The Bulldogs were close last year, losing 32-28 to eventual national champion Alabama in the SEC championship game in Atlanta. LSU beat Georgia for the 2011 SEC title.

The early schedule is daunting. Three of Georgia's first four opponents could be ranked in the top 15, including the Aug. 31 opener at Clemson and the Sept. 7 home opener against South Carolina. LSU visits Athens on Sept. 28.

Here are five things to watch as keys to Georgia's season:

1. LINEBACKER PLAY: Of Georgia's eight NFL draft picks in April, seven were on defense. New stars must emerge to replace linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, who were first-round picks in the NFL draft. Amarlo Herrera, a junior, is Georgia's leading returner with 70 tackles last season. Ramik Wilson also has experience inside, while sophomore Jordan Jenkins showed big-play ability with five sacks last year and looks like a player to watch on the outside. Keep an eye on freshman Reggie Carter as a possible breakout player.

2. SMALLER D-LINE: A key to 3-4 defenses is having a stout run-stopper in the middle. That was no problem the last two years with John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, who weighed a combined 700 pounds. Mike Thornton, the probable starting nose tackle, is smaller at 290 pounds. Senior defensive end Garrison Smith is the only returning starter on the line, though junior Ray Drew also is a veteran. Sterling Bailey could start at the other end, and a newcomer to watch is junior college transfer Toby Johnson.

3. SOPHOMORE SLUMP FOR `GURSHALL': Gurley and Marshall say they've grown tired of the Gurshall nickname which was a reference to the school's most famous tailback, Herschel Walker. They want to be recognized as individuals, not a tandem, and that shouldn't be a problem if they can avoid drop-offs.

4. CLEMSON-SOUTH CAROLINA GAMES: Strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and possibly kicker Marshall Morgan will be suspended for the opener at Clemson. A loss at Clemson, which will attack Georgia's young secondary with star quarterback Tajh Boyd, would damage Georgia's national ranking. A loss the following week to South Carolina would be far more devastating because it could establish the winner as the team to beat in the SEC's Eastern Division. Richt looked surprised when asked at Georgia's media day about a visit from LSU at the end of September. With Clemson and South Carolina awaiting the Bulldogs the first two weeks of the season, who could possibly be looking ahead to the LSU game?

5. A SIGNATURE WIN FOR MURRAY: Murray has led Georgia to two straight wins over Florida, but he's still thought of by some as the quarterback who finished 5 yards shy of beating Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game. Murray could define Georgia's season and his career with a signature win. That could come in September against Clemson or South Carolina, but he's hoping it comes in December at the Georgia Dome with the SEC title on the line.

Predicted finish in the SEC East: First
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