Throughout August, we will be counting down the top 25 teams (as listed here) going into the 2009 season.  Today, we travel deep within SEC territory to Athens, Georgia, a place that hates Ty Hildenbrandt and will have its opportunity to seek barbaric revenge when he visits on September 26th.

First Impressions

Two seasons ago, I penned the following line regarding Georgia football in an effort to draw a parallel between the Bulldogs and the great WWF star “The Ultimate Warrior“:

Hulk Hogan once described The Ultimate Warrior as a “flat character.” Is that not Georgia? Other than a wild touchdown celebration against Florida, the Dawgs have no real defining characteristics. Likewise, they continually fall short of being THE team to beat in college football, content on going 8-4, 9-3, or 10-2 every season.

Never in my life have I been so afraid.  This statement resonated throughout Dawg Nation like a crying baby in a crowded church.  And I was inundated, relentlessly, with messages from angry fans, all of whom contested every syllable of the three sentences I had inadvertently used to launch a pseudo-controversy.  It was undoubtedly the closest I had ever come to being beaten by an angry mob while attempting a joke about a once-superstar in an imaginary sport.

It was then that I realized what Georgia football was all about.  Though I stand by those initial statements — Georgia still hasn’t gotten over that proverbial hump on the national stage — I realize that Georgia sees it differently.  Georgia doesn’t lower its standards when it falls short; if anything, it raises them.  (And its fans sure as hell didn’t appreciate me poking a stick in their wound.)

That’s where we’re at with the Dawgs in 2009.  Only a year ago, this team was loaded for bear with Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno on offense, and a preseason No. 1 ranking to its credit.  But as losses amassed against Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech, it became clear that Georgia was somewhat overrated.  It also became clear that Georgia, at least under Mark Richt, thrives better when it can fly under the radar.  And, well, hello 2009.

As Stafford and Moreno were both first round NFL picks, and the focus in the SEC has shifted to teams such as Florida, Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss, Georgia again finds itself lurking in the weeds, perhaps an upset or two away from making an improbable run.

Last Year

Georgia started the 2008 season as the preseason No. 1 team in the country behind Matthew Stafford‘s arm, and Knowshon Moreno‘s legs.  But it simply wasn’t meant to be.  After starting the year 3-0, Georgia was downed in Sanford Stadium by Alabama, dashing their dreams of a march through the SEC, and launching another title run, indirectly, for the Crimson Tide.

The Dawgs, however, got their act together and hammered out three consecutive wins against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and LSU (in Baton Rouge), setting up a showdown in Jacksonville with another one-loss SEC team: Florida.  But that wasn’t meant to be, either.  The Gators had Georgia on their mind after Mark Richt’s premeditated antics in 2007, and subsequently rolled up a 49-10 blowout victory, which essentially stole the Dawgs’ soul in the second half, and for the remainder of the season.  Two-loss Georgia was out of contention.

And that was pretty much that.  Georgia mailed it in.  In its final three regular season games, the Dawgs survived two back-to-back road scares against Kentucky and Auburn, before eventually succumbing to Georgia Tech to end its season.  Though Georgia won the Capital One Bowl over Michigan State, 2008 was a huge disappointment.

People

Though Georgia loses its two biggest names, the team, as a whole, returns 15 starters.  Get used to names like QB Joe Cox, RB Caleb King, and an underrated group of WRs led by AJ Green and Michael Moore, and a veteran group of defenders led by Geno Atkins, Rennie Curran and Reshad Jones.  Coach Mark Richt will again be in charge of navigating the ship through treacherous SEC waters.  This is the kind of underdog squad with which he is known to excel.  However, one of his most important tasks will be trying to drive a better turnover differential — the last two times Georgia‘s differential has been in the black, the Dawgs have qualified for a BCS bowl.

This Year

Georgia will be tested early when it travels to Stillwater to square off against Oklahoma State, arguably the second-best team in the Big 12, on September 5th.  More importantly, it will provide a very early glimpse at what Georgia’s defense can do against a high-powered offense, which has been a concern over the last few years (the Dawgs’ average points allowed has steadily increased from 16.4 to 24.5 since 2005).

The biggest challenge, however, will be maneuvering another grueling year in the SEC.   This schedule is littered with potential landmines, and quite simply, there are no breaks.  After Okie State, Georgia is looking at South Carolina, @Arkansas, Arizona State, LSU, @Tennessee, @Vanderbilt, Florida (in Jacksonville), Tennessee Tech (OK, this might be a break), Auburn, Kentucky, and @Georgia Tech.  Such is life in the SEC.  The good news is that the Dawgs have a favorable home schedule; the bad news is that LSU, Florida and Georgia Tech could all be major flies in the ointment.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Mark Richt will be finding better harmony between offense and defense.  Simply put, the offense cannot be asked to win every game, and the defense MUST step up and do its share if this season is going to exceed expectations.

Conclusions

Georgia is surprisingly deep in 2009, and in a familiar role in which it has succeeded before under Mark Richt.  Mark me down as a believer that this team will be extremely competitive in every single game, with losses only against Oklahoma State and Florida.

Prediction:

10-2