Georgia and the next step…

ATHENS - The Bulldogs are already talking about a shot at the National Title.

The last seven games of Georgia's 2007 season couldn't have been scripted any better for Bulldog fans. Six straight regular season wins, a dominating Sugar Bowl performance and a number two national ranking leaves many asking the same question. Is Georgia ready to take the next step?

The proverbial next step would not be a conference championship, which Richt has already done twice. The next step is a national title. Georgia will more than likely be ranked somewhere in the top five to start the 2008 season, but can they really put themselves in position to hoist the crystal football at season's end? What are the negatives going into next year? First, winning the national title takes being very good and even more than--that at times it takes being very lucky. Too bad for the Dawgs that the schedule for 2008 is very unlucky.

Trips to South Carolina, Arizona State, LSU and Auburn will be no easy task – not to mention the rival game in Jacksonville with Florida, who will also be ranked top five to start the season. Georgia does get Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia Tech in Athens but home games, particularly against the Vols, have not meant sure victories in the past few years. Bottom line: Georgia is going to have to find a way to win ten out of eleven games, and if they do this then the national title shot is a real possibility.

Georgia has a great cast of returning players coming back for next season. Probably the most notable to fans is the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno. Both are arguably the best players at their position in the SEC. Moreno will more than likely be a Heisman hopeful to start the season. Stafford would get a great deal of hype if he were in a more pass happy offensive system.

The skill of Stafford and Moreno notwithstanding, if you want a conference championship and a shot at the crystal trophy, you need to be most concerned about those returning on the offensive line. Skill position players are the ones most talked about, but without a solid offensive line quarterbacks, running backs and receivers are a dime a dozen.

Georgia loses two players Fernando Velasco at center and Chester Adams at right tackle, but they return a great deal of young talent that played many meaningful snaps. Starters Trinton Sturdivant, Clint Boling and Chris Davis will only be sophomores as will Kiante Tripp, a talented tackle who moved to the offensive side of the line only this past season. The Dawgs will have to figure out who will be their center, and incoming freshman Ben Jones may get a good look at that. Still, while Georgia's offensive line will continue to be young, most of the starters in 2008 will have logged a ton of meaningful snaps in 2007. This unit was the most tested this past season, but also showed the most growth. When the offensive line at Georgia worked the Dawgs were unstoppable – scoring over 40 points in four if the final six games. Georgia should be one of the top offensive lines in the SEC next year, and what is even better is these guys will be back for 2009 and 2010. I haven't mentioned Brannan Southerland, who is a big part of opening up the holes Moreno will be exploding through.

The majority of the receiving corps from 2007 will return. Georgia will have to replace Sean Bailey and Mikey Henderson, but Mohammed Massaquoi will return for his final season in Athens as the starter at one receiver spot. Kris Durham had an eye-opening Sugar Bowl and could be in line for some serious production in 2008. Kenneth Harris should have a breakout year soon, and Demiko Goodman has shown that he can make the big play. Georgia also adds two sensational freshman: A.J. Green and Tavares King. I think that duo will challenge for serious playing time in 2008. Georgia has not managed to have a game-breaking receiver in some time, but one of those two true freshman could soon fill that role. Green, in particular, is being touted as an immediate impact player. LSU proved last season that you don't have to have any true game breakers on offense in order to capture the big prize. The Tigers did it for the most part with solid play up front and balance – that is an attainable goal for the Dawgs in 2008.

The 2007 defensive unit will return almost totally intact. Gone are seniors Brandon Miller, Thomas Flowers, Marcus Howard and Kelin Johnson. What returns for Georgia will probably be the best defense in the SEC and one of the top units in the country.

An experienced secondary in Asher Allen, Prince Miller, Bryan Evans and C.J. Byrd will highlight the defense. Reshad Jones will likely step into the spot Kelin Johnson left. Sophomore weakside linebacker Rennie Curran is about to turn into one of the top linebackers in the SEC. And don't let his size fool you: he has the ability to make plays from sideline to sideline. Dannell Ellerbe has grown as a leader and top playmaker, too.

The defensive line was young in 2007, but also grew. It may be the most promising unit on that side of the ball. Jeff Owens returns for his final season in Athens as the leader of the group. All-SEC selection Geno Atkins will be asked to continue to make plays. Kade Weston, a massive tackle, will also get into the defensive line rotation. On the edge, Rod Battle will probably be joined by Jeremy Lomax or Jarius Wynn.

Immediately after the Sugar Bowl the Georgia players began to utter those words, "National Championship." Well, if they are saying it then Mark Richt and the rest of the coaching staff must have the belief it can happen. We all know that Georgia boasts one of the nation's top coaching staffs. That group has recruited so well that they are primed for a run to the beaches of South Florida and the National Championship Game on January 8, 2009.

Winning the national title is such an incredibly difficult thing to do, and with Georgia's schedule it becomes even more difficult. Still, Georgia's high early-season ranking and the success Mark Richt's teams have had on the road give credence to Georgia really being able to make a run at it.

I don't see this group going undefeated because of the schedule, but they don't have to. One loss should still get them where they want to be as long as that loss is not in the SEC Championship game. It has been proven lately that the SEC champion will usually get a shot at the title when the final BCS rankings come out in December.

Can Georgia do it in 2008? Yes, they can. Will they do it in 2008? I have no idea. If you can predict the national champion after the crazy season we just witnessed, then go right ahead. I know that as the season approaches Georgia will be one of the teams talked about as a contender, and rightfully so.

Georgia has the tools to get it done and, despite the tough schedule, will fear no one they line up against in 2008. Richt seems to have set this team up perfectly for the roller coaster ride they will embark on come August 30. Only time will tell if Georgia will play its final game a week into 2009.

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