Bulldogs enjoy being under radar

ATHENS — There won’t be any hype about a top preseason ranking. There won’t be any players gracing the cover of national magazines. There won’t be Matthew Stafford or Knowshon Moreno. Things will be a lot different than last year when Georgia’s players report for fall practice today, but the expectations of the players haven’t changed a bit.

“We have a great football team,” senior Jeff Owens said. “We have a lot of talent. You just look at our past recruiting classes. We’ve got the talent. We’ve got the guys. We’ve just got to put it all together.”

Unlike last season’s star-studded team that began the season atop the polls, the pundits aren’t quite as enthusiastic as Owens is about the 2009 Bulldogs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Head coach Mark Richt and numerous players have admitted the team failed to handle the hype and heavy expectations that came with last season’s No. 1 ranking. This year, the Bulldogs have flown quietly under the radar, avoiding off-field problems and remaining focused on earning some redemption for last season’s missed opportunities.

The task won’t be simple. Georgia lost three of its top offensive performers from a year ago with Mohamed Massaquoi’s graduation and Stafford and Moreno’s decision to turn pro. Of Georgia’s skill position starters, only receiver A.J. Green returns from last year’s group that was among the most explosive in the country.

While the challenge of replacing so much production seems daunting, first-year starting quarterback Joe Cox said he hasn’t tempered his expectations.

“There’s a possibility to get worse and a possibility to get better,” Cox said. “We want to get better and do just as good as they did when they were here. We have guys that can play, and we’re going to do our best to make plays and be successful as an offense. It’s not like because those guys left, we’re packing up and saying ‘OK defense, win games for us.’ We want to be successful, too, and we’re doing everything we can.”

The defense won’t have to replace as many departed stars, but the unit has its share of question marks this fall, too.

The Bulldogs allowed 38 or more points five times last season, and Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech each moved the ball with ease against Georgia’s defense. While many of the same players will be back in similar roles this season, Owens hopes the unit will have a new approach that will pay dividends.

“The one thing I want to take from last year is working on our consistency,” Owens said. “Some days we played good, some we played bad. I think to be successful both on the field and off the field, you’ve got to be consistent, so that’s what we’re working on.”

It’s a mind-set Richt is happy to see his team embrace.

While replacing Moreno and Stafford won’t be simple, the challenge has managed to unite the team around a common goal. So while things will look a lot different when Georgia reports today, Richt won’t be worried about what’s missing.

“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.”

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