By David Hale and Coley Harvey
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Georgia owned the rivalry with Georgia Tech for most of the past decade, winning seven straight games over the Jackets.
When last season began, there was no reason to think that number wouldn’t grow to eight. After all, Georgia was the preseason No. 1-ranked team in the nation, while Tech had a first-year coach in Paul Johnson.
All of the experts said Johnson’s option offense never would work in a major conference such as the ACC.
Then as the season went on, Georgia was not as good as everyone thought, and Georgia Tech was better than most thought.
Proof of that came Nov. 29, when the Jackets ended the long drought against the Dogs with a 45-42 victory.
Now, as the 2009 season nears, questions abound for both programs, including whether that game was an aberration or a sign that the state’s two major football programs are in a state of transition.
Expectations go down
When Joe Cox made the trip to Birmingham, Ala., to meet with reporters at the SEC’s annual preseason media event, he had a pretty good idea of what to expect. He already had spent months answering the same question over and over.
A year ago, Georgia was the consensus pick as the nation’s best team, but this season, the stars are gone. Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Asher Allen left early for the NFL, seniors who had been key contributors for years are gone, and this season, few pundits are expecting much from the Bulldogs.
As it turns out, Cox wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Our expectations haven’t changed,” Cox said. “We know a lot of people are probably overlooking us, and that’s probably the best thing for us.”
The tempered national expectations have fueled a successful offseason for the Bulldogs.
Before earning preseason No. 1 status last year, nearly a dozen players landed in hot water off the field. Several players were arrested, more were suspended and three were released from the team.
This year has been different. The leadership has been dramatically better, attendance at voluntary offseason workouts and the camaraderie in the locker room formed around a team concept that head coach Mark Richt has worked to instill since January.
“I think a year ago, just in general, when you have what people consider stars like Knowshon and Matthew, they think you’re going to win a national championship,” Richt said. “Conversely, now that they’re gone, they won’t give us much chance to win a national championship. We know that football takes more than two guys.”
More than just isolating their stars last year, the Bulldogs bought in to some of the hype surrounding the team.
“Last year, we thought a lot of things were going to be handed to us, and we took a lot for granted,” receiver A.J. Green said. “This year, we’re just going to work hard, and a lot of people are trying to doubt us, so that gives us even more motivation to come out and do good things.”
It’s more than just a new chemistry in the locker room.
On the field, the losses of Stafford, Moreno and other productive players from a year ago have left a void. Cox has started just one game. Only Green and Michael Moore have more than a dozen career receptions. No tailback on the roster has enjoyed more than minimal game-day success.
Richt admits the statistics might make Georgia’s future appear grim, but his philosophy is that the sum of the Bulldogs’ new faces is greater than the individual parts.
“I think our team understands the only chance they have is to play together, work together, earn it as a team,” Richt said. “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.”
Georgia’s players are excited, too. The pressure is off, the expectations are low, and the morale is better.
The Bulldogs would like to be favorites again, but, for now, senior Jeff Owens said, they are happy working to prove the critics wrong.
“Last year, we were more uptight being No. 1,” Owens said. “This year, it’s more laid back. We’re the underdogs.”
Sedric Griffin’s trips to the mall have been a lot different since the win over Georgia.
He’s finally starting to catch some positive attention.
But why now? What was it about all those previous trips?
“Before, they would say, ‘Oh, you play for Georgia Tech? Oh, well that’s nice,’ ” the Yellow Jackets linebacker said. “But when I go to the mall and I have my Georgia Tech shirt on now, people will be like, ‘Go get them this season,’ or they’ll offer some other nice gesture or nice comments.
“It is very different now.”
As many newly energized Georgia Tech supporters have begun coming out of the woodwork this offseason, the nation has started taking notice of the Yellow Jackets, as well. With their players named to all sorts of preseason award watch lists and preseason all-conference and All-America teams, the Yellow Jackets have discovered a newfound hype that has escaped them in recent seasons.
“You see just a lot more buzz,” Georgia Tech B-back and preseason ACC Player of the Year Jonathan Dwyer said. “A lot more fans come out and watch our practices than did in the past and since I’ve been here. You just see the livelihood around campus and in the community, especially when you go home and see your family. They’re talking about what the season’s going to be like this year, and they’re so excited; they can’t wait to watch a game or see it on TV.”
But the players say they must control their enthusiasm to have the success they envision.
“We’re a good team. We’re ready to have that target,” sophomore safety Cooper Taylor said.
“Truthfully, it’s kind of like last year, we were the underdog. That’s how people put it,” Taylor said. “They (Georgia) were No. 1 in the country; we weren’t even ranked.
“Now we’re going to be the favorite in that (rivalry) game, playing here at Bobby Dodd, Thanksgiving. It’s a switch, and we’ve got to be able to handle that well because now they’re going to be gunning for us; it’s no longer we’re gunning for them.”
Kevin Price contributed to this report.