The expectations placed on Georgia entering the season couldn’t have been higher. The Bulldogs didn’t come close to meeting them.
The preseason No. 1 team in the country isn’t playing for a national title and couldn’t even make a BCS bowl game, so escaping with a 10-win season by beating Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day is their only potential consolation.
Both teams have 9-3 records, but the 19th-ranked Spartans can be proud of achieving the program’s best season this decade while the No. 16 Bulldogs might be disappointed by the Florida city they ended up visiting for bowl season. This game is in Orlando, and a few months ago, they had high hopes of making it to Miami for the BCS national championship game.
By closing last season with seven straight wins and routing Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl to finish No. 2 in the AP poll, Georgia was voted to the top of the rankings at this season’s outset with many star players returning from that 2007 squad.
The Bulldogs opened with four straight wins before losing 41-30 to Alabama on Sept. 27, then struggled to beat Tennessee and Vanderbilt at home in their next two games. The low point of the season - and the most lopsided defeat of coach Mark Richt’s career - came on Nov. 1 with a 49-10 home loss to then-No. 5 Florida.
The next two weeks saw Georgia barely hang on to beat unranked foes Kentucky and Auburn, and things only got worse in the regular-season finale. The Bulldogs blew a 16-point lead in the second half and saw a seven-game winning streak over rival Georgia Tech come to an end with a 45-42 defeat.
“We’re going to do a better job next year,” Richt said the day after that loss. “We will critique everything from top to bottom. We have to be open and honest in our evaluations of ourselves.”
The evaluation of the three losses shows the difference to be star running back Knowshon Moreno getting shut down and the defense failing to stop anyone.
Moreno led the SEC with 1,338 rushing yards, but was held under 100 in each of the three defeats. Those games saw the Bulldogs allow more than 40 points each time while giving up an average of 241.0 rushing yards, including 409 versus Georgia Tech - the most they’ve surrendered since 1994.
“We’ve just got to look at this season, learn from our mistakes, learn what went wrong and try to improve on it,” sophomore linebacker Rennie Curran said.
This matchup features the two Doak Walker finalists who didn’t take home the honor - it went to Iowa’s Shonn Greene - with Moreno looking to outshine Javon Ringer.
It’s possible both players could be first-round picks in this year’s NFL draft if Moreno decides to leave school after two impressive seasons. Ringer, meanwhile, is a senior who has run for 132.5 yards per game to rank third nationally and is tied for second with 21 rushing touchdowns.
“The perfect game for me would be something like 25 carries, 200 yards, three touchdowns and a victory,” Ringer said. “That’s the way I want to go out.
“I’m not naive. That perfect game is something you dream about. Georgia has a tremendous defense. And they are going to make it tough. But we’ve got a good enough team that the dream could become reality.”
He’s probably the biggest reason why Michigan State already has put together its winningest season since finishing 10-2 in 1999. The Spartans had a chance to share the Big Ten title, but they lost 49-18 at Penn State in their regular-season finale.
While Ringer carries the Michigan State offense - no player in the country had more carries than his 370 - Georgia is more balanced with another potential NFL first-rounder under center in Matthew Stafford.
The junior topped the SEC with 3,209 passing yards, throwing for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He could hardly be blamed for the Georgia Tech loss, having thrown for 407 yards and five TDs, but he was more at fault versus Florida after tossing three interceptions and no TD passes.
“Personnel-wise, I would put them up there with the Penn States, the Ohio States.” Spartans quarterback Brian Hoyer said of the Bulldogs. “You can see they have talent. We definitely have our work cut out for us.”
Hoyer might need to step up because the Georgia defense will clearly focus on Ringer. However, the senior signal-caller has been struggling, throwing no touchdown passes and four interceptions over the last three games while barely completing more than half of his attempts.
Second-year coach Mark Dantonio will be looking to lead Michigan State to its first bowl win since beating Fresno State in the 2001 Silicon Valley Football Classic.
The only meeting between these programs was Georgia’s 34-27 win in the 1989 Gator Bowl.
“I think win number 10 is very significant in any program,” Richt said, “and I think both of us are going to be battling pretty hard for that.”