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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: With JT Daniels back, No. 5 Georgia looks good to go

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels came back from a knee injury to lead the Bulldogs to wins in their final four games of the season last year, including a 24-21 win over Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 5 Georgia

Every Georgia fan knows about the perils of preseason hype, but this team has every reason for big dreams. Quarterback JT Daniels is healthy and enters the season as the clear-cut starter. There are talented running backs and a solid offensive line. The defensive line is one of the nation’s best, but there are just five returning defensive starters. Georgia opens against Clemson on Sept. 4. From the glass half-full department, the Bulldogs will know where they stand on Labor Day and have the rest of the season to build on (or rebuild) from whatever happens in Charlotte.

Georgia was No. 6 in our preseason poll last year. The Bulldogs were No. 9 in the final CFP rankings but No. 7 in the AP and coaches polls.

About the Bulldogs

2020: 8-2, 7-2 in the SEC — second place in the East Division behind Florida. They beat Cincinnati 24-21 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, their fourth straight win to end the season.

Coach: Kirby Smart, 52-14 in five years at Georgia. He won three national championships as Alabama's defensive coordinator and took Georgia to the 2017 CFP championship game.

Returning starters: 13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

Shoes to fill: CB Eric Stokes (Packers, 1st round); CB Tyson Campbell (Jaguars, 2nd); LB Azeez Ojulari (Giants, 2nd); LB Monty Rice (Titans, 3rd); TE Tre' McKitty (Chargers, 3rd); S Richard LeCounte (Browns, 5th); C Trey Hill (Bengals, 6th); S Mark Webb (Chargers, 7th)

Georgia wide receiver George Pickens celebrates his first-quarter touchdown catch against Cincinnati in last season's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, one of his 14 career touchdown catches. But he suffered a torn knee ligament this spring and it's not known whether he'll play at all this fall.

Catching up

Daniels took over at quarterback for the last four games of the season — all wins — to tally 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns, as the USC transfer was getting over a knee injury. Lots of onlookers want Georgia to keep throwing it downfield this season. Last year's defense was loaded with NFL talent, but the Bulldogs still struggled in two of the biggest games of last season, giving up 41 points to Alabama and 44 to Florida. But West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith will help at safety and highly-touted sophomore LB Nolan Smith is expected to make a huge jump. WR George Pickens, who has 1,240 career yards and 14 TDs, suffered a torn knee ligament during spring practice and it's unclear if he'll play at all this season.

Returning leaders

Passing: JT Daniels 80-119-1,231, 10/2 (led team); Stetson Bennett 86-155-1,179, 8/6 (2nd)

Rushing: Zamir White 144-779-11 (led team), James Cook 45-303-3 (2nd), Kenny McIntosh 47-251-1 (3rd)

Receiving: Kearis Jackson 36-514-3 (led team), George Pickens 36-513-6 (2nd), Jermaine Burton 27-404-3 (3rd)

Tackles: LB Nakobe Dean 71 (led team), DB Lewis Cine 52 (2nd)

Sacks: OLB Adam Anderson 6.5 (2nd)

Interceptions: None

Returning all-conference

Offense: OL Warren McClendon (all-freshman), RB Kendall Milton (all-freshman)

Defense: DL Jordan Davis (2nd), DL Jalen Carter (all-freshman)

Special teams: P Jake Camarda (special teams player of the year)

FYI

How the pandemic affected Georgia: With the reworked SEC schedule, Georgia had to scrap plans to play rival Georgia Tech and play two additional conference opponents. The school did not release its coronavirus data, but Smart said the team had a full 140-play scrimmage in early September. Last season, depth was one of the team’s major assets, especially on defense.

Secondary concerns: If there’s one weakness, it might be the secondary. Georgia lost its top four defensive backs to the draft, and not a single returning player had an interception last year. Kelee Ringo, the nation’s No. 1 cornerback prospect for the 2020 recruiting class, is back after a shoulder injury. Jalen Kimber and Ameer Speed also have solid experience. One to watch is freshman Nyland Green. Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick may also push for playing time early.

Holding the line: Every team would love to recruit offensive linemen like Georgia. Smart’s assistants have landed six top-100 linemen the last two recruiting cycles. All five starters from last season’s Peach Bowl return, but it’s still a young group overall. This is why Smart brought in former Ole Miss coach Matt Luke, a veteran who can develop youngsters.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Georgia ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Bulldogs ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 38th (2019 — 50th, +12 spots)

Scoring defense: T-16th (1st, -15)

Total offense: 41st (61st, +20)

Total defense: 12th (3rd, -9)

Passing: 45th (72nd, +27)

Pass defense: 88th (31st, -57)

Rushing: 56th (41st, -15)

Rush defense: 1st (1st)

Sacks: 11th (60th, +49)

Interceptions: 35th (89th, +54)

Red zone offense: T-97th (6th, +91)

Red zone defense: 124th (13th, -111)

Turnover margin: T-74th (49th, -25)

Time of possession: 61st (18th, -43)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels work transfer portal to keep things going

No. 9 Notre Dame: Irish should lean on Williams and the running game

No. 8 Cincinnati: Bearcats have risen to the Group of Five mountaintop

No. 7 Iowa State: Returning star power has Cyclones looking strong again

No. 6 Texas A&M: Aggies are set to make another run at a CFP berth

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 4 team. Want a hint?

This school sent 10 players to the NFL draft and doesn't have a single quarterback on the roster who's ever thrown a college pass.