MACON — One year ago, Georgia learned a painful lesson about opening the season with a No. 1 ranking: The only place to move is down, and that fall can be painful.
Georgia finished with another 10-win season, including another bowl win, but still the season was widely viewed as disappointing.
Now the Bulldogs are moving closer to another season with different expectations, thanks in part to soaring hopes for in-state rival Georgia Tech.
It’s already time for 2009 preseason predictions to start surfacing, and this summer Georgia might not even be the top-rated team in the state, much less the nation.
Georgia Tech returns 17 starters from a 9-4 team that beat Georgia in Athens to close its 2008 regular season. The Yellow Jackets’ 2008 success is reflected in the first preseason polls to hit magazine racks this summer.
That’s just fine with second-year coach Paul Johnson.
"We’ll be a better football team this year," Johnson said this week before adding for emphasis, "We will be a better team.
"Now will we win more games? I don’t know. That’s why you play the games. But if we stay healthy I think we’ll have a better football team. I know we’ll be better offensively."
Running back Jonathan Dwyer, the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, and quarterback Josh Nesbitt return as juniors. Also back are running back Roddy Jones, who rushed for 214 yards in the win over Georgia, and top receiver Demaryius Thomas.
By comparison, Georgia coach Mark Richt must replace quarterback Matthew Stafford, the top pick in this year’s NFL draft, and tailback Knowshon Moreno, also a first-round pick. Georgia also lost receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, a second-round pick.
Georgia boasts strong depth on its offensive line, and players and coaches have confidence in fifth-year senior Joe Cox, who takes over at quarterback after playing in only three games last season.
"He’s a guy who has prepared," Richt said. "He has prepared like he’s No. 1 and he’s done that all along."
The Bulldogs have no established starter at tailback, though Richt said Caleb King will open preseason drills as the starter. The defense was shaky in losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech.
As a result, Georgia won’t have to worry about more preseason No. 1 rankings.
Lindy’s preseason magazine ranks Georgia Tech No. 16 and Georgia No. 17. Athlon has Georgia No. 14 and Georgia Tech No. 22. The Sporting News/Street and Smith’s poll has Georgia Tech at No. 11, four spots ahead of No. 15 Georgia.
"I think it provides a lot of motivation," said senior Bulldog defensive end Rod Battle at this week’s annual gathering of the state’s college football teams at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
"If you look at it that way, starting out at No. 1, you either stay there or you fall down," Battle said. "We’re looking at trying to punch through and trying to climb higher. Really, we’re just looking forward to the first game and trying to prepare and play well in that game."
Georgia will try on the underdog role in its Sept. 5 opening game at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are ranked 9th or 10th by Lindy’s, Athlon and The Sporting News.
"It gives you a lot to be motivated about," Battle said. "Going on the road at Oklahoma State, it’s a big game to look forward to. It keeps your perspective on what you’re working for in the offseason."
Georgia has won 82 games in Richt’s first eight seasons, including six seasons with 10 or more wins and a 48-19 mark in Southeastern Conference games.
Georgia Tech hasn’t won as many as 10 games in a season since 1998, and Johnson says last year’s success won’t stop those who doubt his option offense can enjoy long-term success in the ACC.
There may even be some remaining skeptics among the Georgia Tech fan base.
"I don’t worry about those people," Johnson said. "If they’re fans, if your own people are saying you can’t do something, I don’t know if they’re fans. They’re whiners."
Johnson is similarly dismissive of other skeptics, saying most don’t even understand his offense.
"People don’t understand, and people who don’t understand things are never going to accept it," he said. "So it’s like you just move on."
Georgia Tech overcame a 16-point halftime deficit to beat Georgia 45-42 last year for the Yellow Jackets’ first win in the series since 2000.
Johnson said he’s already heard that defenses will be better prepared for his attack this year.
"It’s hilarious, it really is," he said. "They say ‘They have another year of film now and they ought to be able to stop it.’ Well, we’ve been doing it for 26 years. They have 25 years of film. So it’s like anything else, you execute the offense efficiently you’re going to be good. If you don’t, you won’t."