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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Back No. 1: Top Dawgs

Looking back now, it seems as if years have passed since Knowshon Moreno appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country announcing that Georgia was the top team in the land. The precipitous fall from grace that followed those preseason platitudes has vastly changed the perception of the this year's Bulldogs, but as Georgia prepares for its final game of the season Thursday, it's hard to ignore how much those late-summer headlines and lofty expectations shaped the 2008 season.

After Georgia finished the 2007 season with a dominating win over Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl and a No. 2 ranking, the seeds of lofty expectations had already taken root. Head coach Mark Richt spent most of the offseason answering questions about national titles and controlling expectations. By the time the news broke that, for the first time in school history, Georgia would begin the year as the consensus No. 1 team in the country, excitement was at an all-time high, even if the team tried to downplay it.

"I was honored to be on a team that was put at No. 1, but it's all preseason and it's all based on potential, so until we get out there and are actually playing some games, it won't mean anything," tight end Tripp Chandler said during fall camp.

Georgia's top billing earned the Bulldogs plenty of attention. Moreno, Matthew Stafford and Dannell Ellerbe even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. More than just media spotlight, however, Georgia had the attention of its competition.

"We had a target on our back from Day 1, and we knew that," defensive end Jeremy Lomax said.

It wasn't just the opponent that turned out to be a major obstacle for Georgia, however. The lofty expectations proved to be a burden the battered Bulldogs were unable to bear.

The expectations of fans were immense, and simply winning wasn't enough to satiate many pundits. It took just one week of games for Georgia to lose top billing in the polls. After a win over Georgia Southern, the Bulldogs dropped to second, then fell again two weeks later despite beating South Carolina.

Fans lamented close wins, and when the Bulldogs lost to Alabama, the bottom fell out for fans that had dreamed of a national title, the disappointment of dashed dreams clouding any impartial view of the season.

As Georgia concluded its regular season, those questions of preseason hype for Richt were replaced by a similar refrain: How disappointing has this season been? His response was always the same, just as it had been months earlier. Goals were not met, but that didn't mean the season was a failure. Asked if fans might have had a different view of the season had the Bulldogs begun the year ranked 20th, Richt s response spoke volumes. "They'd be doing cartwheels," he said.

Perhaps Georgia just wasn't cut out to be favorites. After all, it wasn't just fans that may have talked themselves into believing the preseason hype.

Looking back now, the hype, the excitement and the expectations may have made a big difference in how Georgia approached its season, and the aftershocks were felt in the locker room throughout the year.

"It definitely got to the point where it was a distraction in big games," Curran said. "The execution wasn't there and there were a lot of things that held us back. It affected us all year."

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