April 7, 2008

Expectations high as Georgia finishes spring

MORE: Georgia needs line to mature quickly this fall

ATHENS, Ga. Georgia coach Mark Richt still remembers the first time he was part of a team that entered a season ranked first in the nation, no matter how much he might want to forget the experience.

Richt was working as a volunteer assistant at Florida State in 1988 when the Seminoles found themselves atop the national rankings for the first time in school history. The team celebrated that accomplishment by recording the "Seminole Rap," a song that featured such timeless lyrics as "When others play us, they be illin' because they all know we just be chillin.' ''

The preseason boasting backfired when Florida State opened the year with a 31-0 loss to Miami. Florida State won the rest of its games, but that season-opening shutout ended the Seminoles' national championship dreams before they ever really started.

"Miami had a bunch of great teams and that was one of their best," Richt recalled. "But they also put some things in defensively they had never shown, and it definitely caught us with our pants down. We didn't react very well to it, and we just couldn't get anything going."

Two decades later, Richt can only hope his team responds better to its moment in the spotlight.

Georgia probably will open the year ranked first or second in the national polls after winning its final seven games of the 2007 season. The Bulldogs' highest preseason ranking came in 1942, when they opened the year as the No. 2 team in the Associated Press poll and went on to win their first national championship.

Time will tell if this year's Georgia team reacts equally well to this unfamiliar position. Richt already has warned them how they shouldn't respond.

"Most preseason rankings are based on what last year's team did, and a good part of it of course is how many guys you've got returning," Richt said. "But it's last year's team that had all the success. This year's team really hasn't done anything yet. That's what they have to understand. Even though there are a lot of guys returning a lot of lettermen returning it's still a brand new team. We really haven't accomplished anything together as far as wins and losses."

The excitement around town already is palpable more than six months before the Aug. 30 season opener against Georgia Southern. While this always has been a football-crazy campus, sophomore linebacker Rennie Curran said the interest has reached a new level this year as classmates have asked him about everything from the incoming recruiting class to the possibility of a No. 1 preseason ranking.

"Hopefully we'll give them something to stay excited about," Curran said.

There's plenty of reason for them to feel excited right now. Georgia returns 19 starters from a team that won the Sugar Bowl and was playing as well as anyone in the country by the end of the season.

The Bulldogs boast a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in Knowshon Moreno, who rushed for 1,334 yards as a redshirt freshman last season. They have nine starters back from a defense that led the Southeastern Conference in sacks last season.

About the only thing Georgia lacks is experience in dealing with expectations of this level, though the Bulldogs welcome the challenge of living up to a potential No. 1 ranking.

Georgia isn't accustomed to opening the year as the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the nation, but the Bulldogs typically have outperformed their preseason ranking during the Mark Richt era. Here's a look at where the Bulldogs started and where they finished in the Associated Press poll during each of Richt's first seven seasons on the job.
YearPreseason RankingPostseason Ranking
"We probably put more pressure on ourselves than people can put on us," junior quarterback Matthew Stafford said.

Stafford's improvement is a major reason why Georgia enters the 2008 season as a legitimate national title contender. After throwing 13 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes as a freshman, Stafford threw 19 touchdown passes with 10 interceptions last season.

The junior quarterback leads an offense that returns three starters on the line and features Moreno in the backfield. Moreno figures to share carries with Caleb King, a heralded redshirt freshman who could have as much of an impact as any Southeastern Conference newcomer.

"He definitely can give us a spark," Moreno said. "He's doing a great job just learning. I think that (redshirt) year helped him just to prepare for this year. The whole backfield looks really good right now."

Georgia might have even more talent on defense, even though the Bulldogs don't have anyone as well-known as Moreno or Stafford on that side of the ball. The Bulldogs lose Sugar Bowl standout Marcus Howard from the defensive line, but they return their six top tacklers from last year.

Dannell Ellerbe and Curran give Georgia a pair of linebackers to rival any tandem in the SEC. Geno Atkins returns to the defensive line after collecting 14 1/2 tackles for loss while starting just seven games last year. Junior cornerback Asher Allen gives the Bulldogs an All-America candidate in the secondary.

"As a group I sense we have more depth than we've ever had, more guys who are interchangeable," Richt said. "We've had other defenses where we'd have that guy, that guy and that guy. We had (David) Pollack, Odell (Thurman) and (Thomas) Davis or whatever it was (in 2003 and 2004), but there were a few guys who stood out on those defenses. In this one, they're all good guys. Some may separate themselves, but there are a lot of good players."

A look at the offensive and defensive depth charts explains why Georgia enters the season as a national title contender, but there are at least a couple of reasons why the Bulldogs could have a tough time winning the championship.

For one thing, Georgia must find someone to take over for Brandon Coutu, one of the most successful kickers in school history. The Bulldogs probably will replace him with a true freshman, with Blair Walsh of Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Cardinal Gibbons arriving on campus this summer as the most likely candidate for the job.

Nobody has won a national title with a true freshman as its main kicker for the entire season since Kris Brown scored 97 points for Nebraska's 1995 championship team, though redshirt freshman Ryan Gaudet and true freshman Chris Jackson shared the kicking responsibilities for LSU in 2003.

And a look at Georgia's schedule indicates the Bulldogs could have plenty of games come down to a late field-goal attempt. Georgia has four straight games early in the season against South Carolina, Arizona State, Alabama and Tennessee. An even bigger test comes in late October when the Bulldogs leave Athens for a four-week stretch that includes games at LSU, against Florida in Jacksonville, at Kentucky and at Auburn.

Richt calls it the most ominous schedule Georgia has faced since he arrived at Athens in 2001. Florida and LSU have shown the last two years that the SEC has garnered enough respect that its conference champion doesn't necessarily have to go unbeaten to play for the national title. In LSU's case, even two losses didn't result in automatic elimination.

The Bulldogs watched those conference rivals closely enough to recognize how Florida and LSU continually managed to withstand adversity the last two years. Georgia won't win a national title this season unless it adopts a similar approach.

"That's going to make the difference this season, if we can come through those tests and those hard times and those times that really try us," Curran said. "Whether we man up or flinch."

Both those teams also capitalized on plenty of good fortune.

USC's stunning loss to UCLA put Florida in the national championship game two years ago. LSU earned its date with destiny after West Virginia fell to Pittsburgh and Missouri lost to Oklahoma on the first weekend of December.

Georgia knows it can't count on getting that lucky.

"We don't have the luxury of having a tournament at the end of the season," sophomore center Chris Davis said. "We need to approach every game like it's a tournament. You lose and you're out. Focus on Georgia Southern. If we don't win that, being No. 1 or No. 2 in the preseason means nothing."

While it's too early to predict whether Georgia can give the SEC its third consecutive national title, we can pretty much guarantee this much. No matter how high Georgia appears in the preseason rankings, don't count on the "Bulldog Rap" hitting the airwaves this summer.

"I'm pretty sure I mentioned to the fellows what happened back in that day," Richt said. "I probably need to remind them again, just to make sure they don't do it."

MORE: Georgia needs line to mature quickly this fall

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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