August 26, 2009

Georgia confident despite being overshadowed

The after-thought deserves a second thought.

All the attention given SEC contenders Florida, Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss each of whom is ranked in the top 11 in the preseason polls has left Georgia almost overlooked.

But where Georgia is concerned, it's prudent to expect the unexpected.

The absences of quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno, both first-round selections after departing early for the NFL draft, and a soft defense that wasn't nearly as good as its '08 statistics indicated have dramatically lowered expectations from a year ago, when Georgia opened No. 1. This season, the Bulldogs open No. 13 in both polls.

"There is a big difference this year," said Jeff Owens, a boulder of a defensive tackle who suffered a knee injury in the opener and missed the rest of the 2008 season. "Last year, we were more uptight because we were No. 1. This year, we're more laid-back because we're underdogs.

"Before last season it was, 'Georgia this, Georgia that.' Hype can get to you, and that was a factor last season."

Coach Mark Richt, who has 82 victories in eight seasons in Athens, didn't disagree, but he brought up other factors, too. He said there is more of a team concept this season, a sentiment frequently echoed by his players.

"Everybody expected us to win 'em all because we had these two guys that everybody considered stars, and maybe subconsciously our guys thought, 'We can count on these guys,' " Richt said. "Now that they're gone, I think our team understands the only chance they have is to play together, work together, earn it as a team.

"I think they've done a great job of buying into that, preparing throughout this offseason for that type of season. So I'm excited."

So is Owens.

"The star of our team this year is our team," Owens said. "[Sophomore wide receiver] A.J. Green stands out as a star, but this year it's all about the team. Everyone has to be a star to win and be successful."

Early tests loom
Fans will know whether the Bulldogs are a top-10 team by mid-October; the early season schedule is a tough one.
Sept. 5, at Oklahoma State
BUZZ: Georgia's rebuilt offense goes against a questionable Oklahoma State defense. If Georgia's defensive interior makes life tough for Oklahoma State RB Kendall Hunter, the Bulldogs could come away with the win.
Sept. 12, vs. South Carolina
BUZZ: A big game in the SEC East. Given what is left on the schedule, you'd think Georgia would have a tough time finishing second in the division if it loses to the Gamecocks.
Sept. 19, at Arkansas
BUZZ: The Razorbacks may be the biggest mystery team in the SEC. New QB Ryan Mallett looks like a great fit for coach Bobby Petrino's offense. But the Hogs' defense was awful last season.
Sept. 26, vs. Arizona State
BUZZ: A trap game, of sorts, as it comes between two intriguing SEC matchups. If Arizona State has found a quarterback, the Sun Devils' passing game figures to pose a test for Georgia's secondary.
Oct. 3, vs. LSU
BUZZ: This is the first truly big SEC game to be played this season. This is the first of huge back-to-back games for LSU, which plays host to Florida the next week.
Oct. 10, at Tennessee
BUZZ: New Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin gets his first test of the Bulldogs-Vols rivalry. Some offseason comments by Kiffin will add spice. Depending on Georgia's start, this game could be huge for the Bulldogs.
Since freshman tailback Herschel Walker catapulted the Bulldogs from a preseason No. 16 ranking to the national championship in 1980, Georgia has finished in the top 10 seven times when it wasn't ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll to start the season. Three of those seasons have come during Richt's eight-year tenure. In '03, Georgia started 11th and finished seventh. In '05, the Bulldogs started 13th and finished 10th with an SEC championship. In '07, they started 13th and finished second in the nation.

That every-other-year pattern could continue this season.

Fifth-year senior Joe Cox, who replaces Stafford at quarterback, doesn't have a lot of experience, but he has drawn praise for his leadership skills.

"I have stepped into my role as a leader of this team," he said. "I am right where I want to be. I've worked hard, and a lot of guys look up to me and are ready and willing to follow me.

"Obviously, there is pressure, but it's not something I think about. The success of this team is not all on my shoulders. There are 10 other guys that get the job done as well. I won't carry the team. We'll work together, and that is where our success will come from, the team."

Replacing the production of Moreno, who rushed for 1,400 yards last season, won't be easy. Sophomore Richard Samuel, who will start the season at tailback, doesn't have Moreno's moves. But Samuel does have something Moreno didn't have last season a healthy offensive line in front of him.

Last season, the Bulldogs lost tackle Trinton Sturdivant for the year with an injured knee suffered during fall drills. Tackle Vince Vance missed half the season with a knee injury. Now, the Bulldogs are experienced and deep and have the potential to be as dominant up front as Alabama was last season.

Richt getting richer
Here's a look at where Georgia was ranked in the AP poll at the beginning and the end of the football seasons during the tenure of coach Mark Richt.
YearPreseasonFinal
2001Unranked23rd
20028th3rd
200311th7th
20043rd7th
200513th10th
200615th23rd
200713th2nd
20081st13th
200913thTBD
The defense should be improved, too. It had better be.

The Bulldogs have an impressive rotation at tackle with Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston, and Rennie Curran heads a group of fast linebackers. Two starters return in the secondary. But that doesn't ensure anything.

Georgia ranked 22nd in the nation in total defense last season, but that was a byproduct of playing slugging offenses. Six regular-season opponents ranked 97th or worse in total offense. Georgia allowed at least 38 points in five games, which spawned harsh criticism of coordinator Willie Martinez.

Richt accepts a lot of responsibility for last season's defensive issues. Concerned about mounting injuries, he reduced the amount of full-contact practices. In retrospect, he said that was a bad decision.

"You don't get good at defense by doing that," Richt said. "I hope I'm not put in that situation again to have to make that decision, but if I don't flinch, we're going to keep practicing the way you've got to practice playing defense. Hopefully, we learned a good lesson there."

The Bulldogs have a team-first attitude, a good leader at quarterback, a healthy offensive line, Owens back on a defense that won't be reined in during practice and much-lower expectations.

Looks like it should be a good season in Athens.

"With people telling you, 'You won't be as good,' you turn it around and use it on the field and in the locker room," Cox said. "When someone tells you you can't do something, it motivates you and you better yourself."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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