Georgia opens fall camp Thursday facing several questions, none bigger than this: Are the Bulldogs really better off without running back Isaiah Crowell?
Coach Mark Richt dismissed the 2011 SEC freshman of the year five weeks ago following his arrest on weapons charges, ending a troubled relationship that began with Crowell's ballyhooed signing ceremony. He came to Athens as the nation's top-rated running back.
Richt had no choice but to cut ties with Crowell, who ran for 850 yards and scored six touchdowns despite missing time with injuries. The list of incidents involving Crowell was lengthy.
Former Georgia coach and AD Vince Dooley spoke for many Bulldogs fans when he said “losing that guy may have been the best thing to happen to them. It was a bad-apple type thing, if you ask me.”
Dooley continued, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “That kind of thing will unite a team many times. Historically when things like this have happened in the past, they tend to have a unifying effect on teams. They go on to have an even better season than they were predicted to have.”
SEC media picked Georgia to win the East, and CBSSports.com ranked the Bulldogs sixth in the country. So Crowell's absence hasn't dampened expectations.
Sophomore Ken Malcolme sits atop the depth chart entering camp: He played in six games last season, starting two, and gained 174 yards on 42 carries (4.1 ypc). Do-it-all senior Richard Samuel will move from fullback to tailback.
But whether Georgia is better off hinges on two true freshmen who are highly-touted, though not as hyped as Crowell: Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. Marshall enrolled early, participated in spring practice, and “certainly has been diligent about learning what to do and that's more than half the battle,” Richt told the newspaper.
In a separate interview, Richt made it clear he's counting on Marshall and Gurley.
“Historically, true freshmen trailbacks have been able to come in and play big in anybody's league, and they're going to get that chance,” he told ESPN.
A 5-foot-11 and 202 pounds out of Raleigh, N.C., Marshall ran for 1,891 yards and 25 touchdowns as a high school senior, averaging 7.3 yards a carry. He's rated a five-star prospect. Gurley, a 6-foot-1, 195-pounder out of Tarboro, N.C., totaled 2,600 yards and 38 scores as a senior. He's a four-star prospect.
What it does with their massive opportunity could determine whether Georgia returns to the SEC championship game.
For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis from SEC bloggers Larry Hartstein and Daniel Lewis, follow @CBSSportsSEC.