Five keys for Georgia football: A look ahead to what 2009 holds

Five keys for Georgia’s football team entering the 2009 season:

1. Replacing the superstars

Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Mohamed Massaquoi were responsible for an enormous chunk of Georgia’s offense a year ago, and all will be playing in the NFL in 2009. Massaquoi’s loss was expected and is at least in part negated by the breakout season by A.J. Green a year ago. Stafford and Moreno, both of whom left school early, will be harder to replace. Fifth-year senior Joe Cox was named the starting QB from Day 1, but as many as five tailbacks are still battling for Moreno’s carries — a competition that may not be over by the start of the season.

2. Getting defensive

Georgia allowed 38 points or more in four of its final five regular-season games last season, putting much of the responsibility the team’s missed opportunities squarely on the shoulders of the defense. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez became fans’ favorite target for scorn, but the unit turned in a strong performance in its bowl game, and with the return of senior leader Jeff Owens from a season-ending injury, the Bulldogs are hoping the defensive might be a strength in 2009.

3. Staying healthy

More than two dozen players missed time due to injuries last season, from key players like Owens and left tackle Trinton Sturdivant to a bevy of special teams stalwarts. So far, however, all but three are on track to be ready to go once preseason practice begins in August, and head coach Mark Richt is holding his breath that last year’s injury bug won’t bite quite so fiercely this season.

4. Starting with the ends

For all the problems the defense had last season, none was bigger than the lack of a consistent pass rush. Owens’ absence in the middle of the line was part of the problem, but the bigger issue was a lack of pressure from the defensive ends. Injuries plagued the position, and by the end of spring practice, Justin Houston and Kiante Tripp (who converted from offensive line in January) were the only two still healthy enough to play. Now, Houston will be suspended for the first two games of the season due to a rules violation, and the Bulldogs still don’t have much security at the position.

5. Keeping the focus

Last season Georgia began the year with a No. 1 ranking, but most pundits thought the Bulldogs’ schedule was too tough for them to remain unscathed. This year, much of the talent that earned them the No. 1 ranking is gone, but the schedule might be even tougher, starting with an opening week game at Oklahoma State. But while the road won’t be easy, several players have said the team relishes its new underdog role, which might be the key to maneuvering through the gauntlet that lies ahead.