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August 18, 2008

Dawgs tabbed Tops in the Land

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -- Mark Richt couldn't hide his enthusiasm after he made the climb to the press box to watch Georgia's spring game in April.

The view was good. Richt saw talent everywhere.

"To be honest with you, I felt pretty blessed," Richt said, adding he was impressed with Georgia's "good-looking athletes."

Richt isn't alone. It seems all who have a vote in preseason polls, including Richt's national peers, have been impressed with the Bulldogs.

Georgia, No. 2 in the final 2007 Associated Press Top 25, is No. 1 in The USA Today/Coaches preseason poll. Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and Lindy's also have the Bulldogs No. 1 in their preseason polls.

The Associated Press preseason Top 25 will be released on Saturday.

Richt returns 17 starters, including nine on defense and most of the skill players from an offense that scored 40 or more points in six games last year.

Georgia returns speed, experience and depth after an 11-2 2007 season in which Richt said he used more players - due to talent, not injury or poor performance - than in any other year. The Bulldogs will carry a seven-game winning streak into this season.

The list of returning starters includes two players - quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno - who could make Heisman Trophy watch lists.

Leaders on defense include linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Rennie Curran and tackle Jeff Owens. Cornerback also is a strength with juniors Asher Allen and Prince Miller.

Richt's enthusiasm after the G-Day spring game made fans even more eager for the season.

As preseason drills began, Richt was asked about his somewhat giddy spring evaluation.

"I probably shouldn't have said that," Richt said. But in his next breath Richt showed he still couldn't help himself.

"It was a pretty good-looking bunch of guys down there playing," he said.

Georgia will need all its depth and talent to survive a brutal schedule. The Bulldogs must play South Carolina, Arizona State, LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn away from Athens. The home schedule includes back-to-back games against Alabama and Tennessee.

The games against LSU, the defending national champion, and Florida, which was picked over Georgia by the conference media to win the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, come on consecutive Saturdays.

The Sept. 20 visit to Arizona State will be Georgia's first regular-season game that far west since 1960, when it lost to Southern Cal in Los Angeles only months after Richt was born.

Georgia also plays Kentucky and Vanderbilt. SEC lightweights? Not so fast. Both teams beat the Bulldogs only two years ago.

The schedule may be the biggest reason to argue Georgia won't make it to the national championship game.

"I think the schedule will be tough," Moreno said. "Each and every week will be down to the wire. ... We're just going to focus on one game at a time."

Stafford says the high preseason rankings are neither a blessing nor a burdensome bullseye.

"Not as far as anything on the field," Stafford said. "With the stuff that we can take care of and worry about there isn't any advantage or disadvantage about any ranking. As far as the BCS, the polls, how people vote or how far you fall, that's stuff we can't control. The stuff that we can control is on the field. When you get out on the field there are no rankings."

Richt complained about the BCS "stuff" Georgia couldn't control at the end of last season. The Bulldogs won their last six regular-season games, and Richt lobbied unsuccessfully for a spot in the national championship game.

The more convincing counterpoint was Georgia didn't even win the SEC's Eastern Division. It is difficult to argue a team that didn't play for its conference championship should have a say in the national championship.

Georgia settled for a spot in the Sugar Bowl, where it crushed Hawaii 41-10 for its seventh straight win.

There are few starting spots to be won.

Richt probably will open the year with freshman Blair Walsh as the new kicker. Another preseason emphasis is finding a replacement at center for Fernando Velasco.

A new concern on the offensive line is left tackle. Trinton Sturdivant, who started all 13 games as a freshman last season, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Georgia's first preseason scrimmage.

Fullback is a rare thin position, at least early in the season. Georgia will open the season without starter Brannan Southerland, who had surgery in June to repair a stress fracture in his left foot. One of Southerland's backups, Fred Munzenmaier, has been suspended by Richt for the first two games.

Richt said sophomore Shaun Chapas, the likely interim starter at fullback, "knows what he's doing."

The best news for Richt is few of his top players are seniors. Georgia probably will start only eight seniors, including punter Brian Mimbs, on Aug. 30 against Georgia Southern.

Stafford, a junior, already has made 21 starts and thrown 26 touchdown passes. The elusive Moreno, who rushed for 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns last year in the best season for a Georgia freshman tailback since Herschel Walker, could be the better Heisman Trophy candidate.

Curran, also only a sophomore, had seven tackles and two sacks in the Sugar Bowl rout of Hawaii to show he may be ready for a breakout year.

Sophomore Reshad Jones had 57 tackles and two interceptions last year despite making only two starts, and he appears poised to follow Jermaine Phillips, Sean Jones, Thomas Davis, Greg Blue, Tra Battle and Kelin Johnson on Georgia's list of standout safeties in this decade.

Notable seniors include Mohamad Massaquoi, Ellerbe, Owens, Southerland and tight end Tripp Chandler.

Opening games against Georgia Southern and Central Michigan were made more difficult by the offseason suspenions of six players, including starting offensive guard Clint Boling, for a string of offseason arrests and fights.



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