NEW YORK — By the time Georgia was done demolishing Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, it was apparent the Bulldogs were well on their way to being No. 1 — to start the 2008 college football season.
Seeking its first national championship in 28 years, Georgia is on top of The Associated Press preseason Top 25 for the first time.
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The Bulldogs received 22 first-place votes and 1,528 points from a panel of 65 media members in the poll released Saturday.
”To have people believing we have one of the best teams in the nation going into this thing, it's exciting for us,“ Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said in a telephone interview with the AP.
”I don't think anything is guaranteed, but we certainly have put ourselves in position where at least the college football world thinks we're pretty good.“
Ohio State, coming off a second consecutive loss in the national championship game but returning 20 starters, is No. 2. The Buckeyes received 21 first-place votes and 1,506 points.
No. 3 Southern California, which plays Ohio State in Los Angeles on Sept. 13, received 12 first-place votes. No. 4 Oklahoma had four first-place votes and No. 5 Florida received six first-place votes.
Georgia finished last season 11-2 and No. 2 in the country behind Southeastern Conference rival LSU. The Tigers won the national championship in the Superdome in New Orleans on Jan. 7 by beating the Buckeyes.
But a week earlier on that same field the Bulldogs ended their season with a seventh straight victory and sent a message about 2008: ”Look out!“
Georgia toyed with high-scoring Hawaii and its Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Colt Brennan in a 41-10 rout, and one glance at the Bulldogs' depth chart, with all those freshmen and sophomores playing major roles, revealed the Bulldogs would be a force this season. The questions started even as Georgia celebrated its big victory on the confetti-covered turf.
Richt's job since then has been to keep his team from getting too wrapped up in the hype.
”I think it motivates the guys to prepare well, but the big thing is: If you think about a championship way back in January ... that can wear you down,“ Richt said. ”It's our responsibility as coaches to help these guys break it down to one day at a time, one workout at a times, one practice at a time. Just prepare to be in position for the challenge.
”If we don't work, we'll have no chance.“
No. 6 Missouri has its best preseason ranking. The Tigers ended last season No. 4, which was their best showing ever in the final poll.
LSU's Tigers will begin defense of their national championship ranked seventh. West Virginia is eighth, Clemson is ninth and No. 10 Auburn gives the SEC four top-10 teams to start the season.
With Florida and LSU taking the last two national titles, the SEC could become the first to conference to have three different teams win consecutive national titles.
Georgia certainly has the ingredients on the field to make that happen.
”We take it one step at a time. All we can do is focus on the smaller picture,“ receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said. ”We can't let ourselves get overwhelmed. It takes away from playing hard and playing smart.“
The Bulldogs return 16 starters, including quarterback Matthew Stafford, already being touted as a future first-round draft pick, and running back Knowshon Moreno, who became the first Georgia freshman to run for 1,000 yards since Herschel Walker did it while leading the Bulldogs to the national title in 1980.
Stafford has been starting since his freshman season, and so far has been more of a caretaker quarterback than a star for the Bulldogs. He completed 56 percent of his passes last season for 2,523 yards and 19 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
The Bulldogs expect more from the 6-foot-3, 237-pound NFL prototype.
”I think he's ready to fly,“ Richt said. ”He improved tremendously from his freshman year.
”We're all kind of growing together with Matt. This year we ought to see a better performance by him, not only because he's better but because the guys around have improved also.“
Stafford will, however, be without his left tackle from last season. Trinton Sturdivant, who started every game as a freshman last season, injured his left knee in a preseason scrimmage and is done for the year.
On defense, the Bulldogs have a potential All-American in every unit, starting with 290-pound tackle Geno Atkins, middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who led the team in tackles and had a huge game in the Sugar Bowl, and cornerback Asher Allen, who was second on the team in tackles and had three interceptions.
The second 10 of the Top 25 begins with No. 11 Texas, followed by Big 12 rival Texas Tech. No. 13 is Wisconsin, with Kansas and Arizona State next.
BYU, ranked in the preseason for the first time since 1997, is 16th.
Virginia Tech is 17th and Tennessee is 18th. South Florida, which made the AP Top 25 for the first time last year and rose all the way to No. 2, has its first preseason ranking at No. 19.
Illinois rounds out the top 20.
The final five are Oregon, Penn State, Wake Forest, Alabama and Pittsburgh, ranked in the preseason for the first time since 2003.
The SEC leads all conferences with six ranked teams, and Georgia has the other five on its schedule, plus a trip to Arizona State on Sept. 20.
”We definitely have our work cut out for us,“ Richt said.
So do the Bulldogs' opponents.