ATHENS, Ga. | The Georgia Bulldogs head into spring practice Tuesday coming off another 10-win season and savoring one of the top recruiting classes in the country.
All's well between the hedges, right?
Well, not exactly.
The Bulldogs, you might recall, went into last season ranked No. 1 in the nation. They weren't even the best team in their own state by the time it was over. And now, they must replace their two best players, quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno.
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"We've got our backs against the wall," said fifth-year senior Joe Cox, who's penciled in to replace Stafford at quarterback. "We're an underdog-type team. I know there's a lot of people doubting us."
Judging from the chatter on Internet message boards, Georgia fans are fretting a little more than usual, clearly bothered by the perception that their program is starting to lag ever so slightly behind the other elite schools in the powerful Southeastern Conference.
Urban Meyer has guided hated Florida to a pair of national titles in the past three seasons. LSU took the other one. Nick Saban is restoring Alabama to its Bear-like glory. Lane Kiffin has made all sorts of waves since taking over at Tennessee — and he hasn't even coached a game yet.
Then there's Georgia, where Mark Richt is content to maintain the steady path that's produced two SEC titles and made the Bulldogs a steady presence in the Top 10 since he arrived in 2001.
"We have something to prove every year," said Richt, whose team begins spring practice on Tuesday. "Let's face it, we're in the Southeastern Conference. Every year is an unbelievable challenge. We've got some of the finest teams in the United States, the finest programs and coaches in the country. There's just no room for the weak. You certainly have to be playing at close to full potential every week or you won't even have a chance."
Georgia learned that lesson the hard way in 2008. The Bulldogs were No. 1 heading into a season for the first time in school history. A couple of unimpressive wins raised doubts about whether they deserved such a lofty ranking. Then Alabama provided an emphatic answer.
No, the Bulldogs weren't that good.
The Crimson Tide rolled into Athens, built a stunning 31-0 lead by halftime and romped to a balance-of-power-changing victory. Georgia stayed on the fringe of the national championship race until the first day of November, when Florida finished off those hopes with an emphatic 49-10 blowout.
The coup de grace on a year of unfulfilled expectations came in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs squandered a 16-point halftime lead and lost to their state rival for the first time since 2000, 45-42.
"We need to work on our passion," said defensive tackle Jeff Owens, who missed most of the season with a knee injury but had a behind-the-scenes look at what went wrong. "When you're playing, you've got to be passionate about it."
While conceding there's always room for improvement, Richt can get testy when anyone suggests his program is falling behind neighboring schools. Not long after the Bulldogs defeated Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, he ripped out a list of accomplishments in his eight-year tenure, including six 10-win seasons and five top-10 finishes in The Associated Press rankings.
But Richt also realizes that no one can stand still, not in the SEC. Just ask Phillip Fulmer, forced out at Tennessee after his program headed south. Or Richt's predecessor, Jim Donnan, who went 40-19 during five years as coach but lost his job anyway.
"Every year we try to tighten the ship," Richt said. "Every year we evaluate what we've done well and maybe what we didn't do well. Anything we think we need to tighten up, we're going to do. That's what we do on a yearly basis. My mentality right now is to treat this team as if it's a first-year mentality. I want this to seem like the first year I've been coaching at Georgia. We're setting the tempo as a coaching staff."
The Bulldogs will not go into this season ranked No. 1, not after Stafford and Moreno both decided to leave school early for the NFL draft.
Stafford is being considered as the top pick overall by the Detroit Lions, while Moreno will certainly go in the first round as well. They leave behind some major holes to fill at two of the most important positions on the field: quarterback and running back.
But Richt has expressed plenty of confidence in Cox, who actually got a brief shot to start during his redshirt freshman year. Once Stafford established himself, Cox was forced into nothing more than a mop-up role the last two seasons.
Now, heading into his final year of college, the Bulldogs are his team. Finally.
"It was pretty tough, but I knew the situation coming to Georgia," Cox said. "They're going to bring in top guys every year. It just so happened that the year after I came, the top guy of all time came in. So I had to wait a little longer. It was frustrating at times. But I never really hung my head or got to where I didn't have any confidence. I just tried to look at the positives of it."
The Bulldogs hope he will draw off the lessons learned by D.J. Shockley. He went through a similar experience, waiting three years for his chance to start. Shockley finally got on the field as a senior — and led the Bulldogs to an SEC title in 2005. He now plays for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
Cox doesn't have Stafford's size or arm strength, but he was one of the nation's better quarterbacks coming out of high school, having teamed with former Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.
"We lost Stafford. That's a big deal, there's no doubt about that," Richt said. "But I think there's a peace around the program knowing Joe is at the helm right now because of his leadership, his knowledge of the system, his ability to play the game."
Caleb King and Richard Samuel are ready to step up at tailback, another position that doesn't seem of much concern to Richt. King was one of the top high school players in Georgia and spent a year as Moreno's understudy, gaining 247 yards as a redshirt freshman.
The Bulldogs' more pressing concern is defense. They gave up at least 38 points in five games last season, turning up the heat on defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
Richt has stood by Martinez, though he did promote linebackers coach John Jancek to co-defensive coordinator. The move was more a reward to Jancek for not taking a coordinator job at South Florida; Martinez will maintain the lead role running the defense.
Now, the Bulldogs need to show some improvement.
It all starts Tuesday.
"We've got to earn everything we get," Richt said. "We know this is a very tough league every year. Every season brings on new challenges."