After a strong finish to the 2007 season, Georgia felt it deserved a berth in the BCS title game, but the committee did not extend an invitation.
The Bulldogs are going to do whatever it takes to not let that happen again.
For the first time in school history, Georgia opens the season as the top-ranked team in the country and embarks on its quest for its first national championship in 28 years Saturday against Georgia Southern at Sanford Stadium.
By the time the 2007 regular season concluded, the Bulldogs were one of the hottest teams in the nation. They won their final six regular-season games by an average of 12.5 points, and coach Mark Richt lobbied for a spot in the national championship game although his team didn’t even win the SEC East.
Georgia was bypassed for a shot at the title, though, and the team took out its frustration on Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl - while sending a message about 2008. The Bulldogs pounded the Warriors 41-10 to finish the season 11-2 and ended up with a No. 2 ranking in the final AP poll.
Georgia opens this season one spot higher, and hopes it can remain there and win its first title since 1980.
“To have people believing we have one of the best teams in the nation going into this thing, it’s exciting for us,” Richt said.
“I don’t think anything is guaranteed, but we certainly have put ourselves in position where at least the college football world thinks we’re pretty good.”
While expectations have never been higher for the Bulldogs, Richt doesn’t want his players getting too far ahead of themselves. Georgia is faced with a daunting schedule, as six opponents - Florida, LSU, Auburn, Arizona State, Tennessee and Alabama - made the AP preseason Top 25 poll, and South Carolina topped the list of others receiving votes.
“I think it motivates the guys to prepare well, but the big thing is: If you think about a championship way back in January … that can wear you down,” Richt said. “It’s our responsibility as coaches to help these guys break it down to one day at a time, one workout at a time, one practice at a time. Just prepare to be in position for the challenge.
“If we don’t work, we’ll have no chance.”
Richt returns eight starters to an offense that scored 40 or more points six times last season, including Heisman Trophy hopefuls in quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno.
Stafford, a junior, has already made 21 starts, and passed for 2,523 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season.
Moreno, an all-conference selection last year, rushed for 1,396 yards and 14 touchdowns, the best season by a Georgia freshman tailback since Herschel Walker in the Bulldogs’ last championship season.
Nine starters return to a defense that ranked third in the SEC in points allowed per game (20.2) and total defense (323.2 yards per game). Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, a preseason all-conference selection, led the Bulldogs with 93 tackles, while tackle Geno Atkins had 7 1/2 sacks and 14 1/2 tackles for loss and was a first-team All-SEC selection.
Although Georgia has a difficult schedule ahead, it should be able to win its 12th straight home opener.
The Eagles finished 7-4 last season, including an upset win at Appalachian State to end the Mountaineers’ 30-game home winning streak, but they have very few returning players.
Seventeen of the 22 first- and second-string players on offense have never played at Georgia Southern. The biggest loss is star quarterback Jayson Foster, who rushed for 1,844 yards to set an NCAA record for quarterbacks.
Coach Chris Hatcher doesn’t know what to expect from his young squad, but that should mean Georgia won’t know what to expect either.
“They don’t have any game film on our team, I can assure you of that,” Hatcher said.
The last time Georgia and Georgia Southern met was in the 2004 opener, as the Bulldogs won 48-28 with the Eagles scoring half of their points in the final six minutes.
Although it would be a huge upset if Georgia Southern wins at Sanford Stadium, the Eagles did manage to beat Appalachian State last season after the Mountaineers opened 2007 with a win at No. 5 Michigan.
Hatcher doesn’t believe his team will be intimidated Saturday.
“Georgia puts their pants on just like we do, one leg at a time,” he said. “Though, their legs may be bigger than our legs.”