ATHENS — Aaron Murray said Thursday he's glad he has had three seasons to prepare for Georgia's tough first few games this season.
Georgia opens at Clemson on Aug. 31 and also will play South Carolina and LSU in its first four games. Each of the three teams could be ranked in the top 15.
Asked how he would have reacted to those early challenges as a sophomore, Murray said, "Oh, I'd be terrified."
As a senior, Murray said he's "more excited" about the schedule as Georgia opened practice on Thursday. The Bulldogs' offense is expected to be strong with 10 returning starters, including tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The full offensive line returns, along with receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett and tight end Arthur Lynch.
Only four starters return on defense from the Georgia team that finished 12-2 and No. 5 in the AP Top 25 last season with a 33-28 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
One year ago, the defense was the perceived strength as the offense broke in new starters at tailback and on the offensive line. The roles have been reversed.
"Now the defense is the side of the ball that was like the offense last year," Bulldogs Coach Mark Richt said Thursday. "What are they going to do? What can they accomplish? Are they going to grow up fast enough? I'm sure the defense wants to rise to that challenge, but the reality is in talking to the guys, especially the leadership, is it's a new year and a new team and we want to approach it that way."
Georgia was ranked No. 5 in the coaches' preseason poll released on Thursday. South Carolina was No. 7, Clemson was No. 8 and LSU was No. 13.
Murray, who already graduated with a degree in psychology, returned for his senior season after considering his status for April's NFL draft. He ranked second in the nation in passing efficiency as a junior and said he returned because he thinks this team can contend for championships — even with the demanding schedule.
Lynch, also a senior, said the narrow loss to Alabama helped Murray's decision.
"I wasn't too surprised when we lost the game and had unfinished business," Lynch said. "I think Aaron came here to win championships first and foremost, not individual records or accolades. I think for him that was his deciding factor. Had we won, I think it would have been interesting to see what he would have done.
"He came back for one more season and hopefully at the end of the day we can say he made the right choice by coming back to win a championship."
Georgia tied its school record by having eight players selected in the NFL draft. Seven of the picks were defensive players, including linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree in the first round.
The secondary will be especially young. Cornerback Damian Swann is the only returning starter in the unit. Strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, a projected starter, will miss the Clemson game as he serves a one-game suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
A second starter, kicker Marshall Morgan, also may miss the opener following his arrest last month on charges of boating under the influence. Richt didn't announce suspensions last year until game days.
Earlier this week at a speaking engagement, Richt said South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney "might be the very best player who exists today at any level." That became a hot topic.
Asked if he stands by that assessment, Richt amended his statement to say Clowney has the potential to develop into a top NFL player.
"I think I said he might be the best one on the planet and it became news," Richt said. "I think he's the best college football player in America. There are a couple of other guys you could debate on that. I think I said that if you give him a couple of years of him learning in the NFL, my bet is he'll be one of the best if not the best before his career is over in that league.
"That might be a better way of saying it."