Dawgs Try to Make It Right in 2009

ORLANDO – The matchup is a perfect example of how much perspective can alter a season.

The similarities between the two opponents in the 2009 Capital One Bowl are staggering. Both Michigan State and Georgia are 9-3. Both lost two conference games to teams playing in BCS bowls by large margins. Both teams dropped close, high-scoring non-conference contests. Both finished third in their conference, losing the final games of their regular seasons. Both have exceptional tailbacks that have become the focal point of today's game.

Here's the difference: Michigan State is thrilled to be here, hoping for just its third 10-win season in school history, enjoying its first New Year's Day game in eight years. For Georgia, on the other hand, its date with the Spartans represents a sobering finale to a season that began with the greatest of expectations – and a No. 1 ranking.

"We've been through all that kind of talk once the regular season ended, and a lot of things were said and felt," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said before one of this week's practice sessions. "But right now, I hope they're really enjoying this experience and I hope they take seriously the moments that we are working."

Players from both sides have expressed the importance of winning today's game, but what each side hopes a victory will accomplish couldn't be more divergent.

For the Spartans, Georgia represents a chance to show they are ready to compete with the upper echelon of college football. In their second year under head coach Mike Dantonio, Michigan State has quickly become a player in the Big Ten, but a win over the preseason No. 1 would be a marquee win for the Spartans.

"Realizing they were the top of the talk of college football at the beginning of the season, to now have a chance to play them regardless of records or how they got here," linebacker Adam Decker said, "to be able to play a team that was the cream of the crop of college football is a great chance for us."

For Georgia, a win over Michigan State is expected by an increasingly somber fan base – not to mention most experts. Today's game isn't about living up to those expectations, however. It's about showing fans why the expectations were so high way back in August.

"It's real important for us to go out there and play as one, play as a whole unit and just show everybody what the Georgia defense is all about," linebacker Akeem Dent said.

The divergence in attitudes could be as much of a factor in the game as any of the Xs and Os coaches have drawn up during the past month of preparation.

Michigan State has heard all the talk of Georgia's nearly guaranteed win, and the Spartans are embracing the role of underdogs, Decker said. They have heard the discussion of Georgia's disappointment to be playing in Orlando, Fla. rather than Miami, where this season's national championship game will be played.

"I'd hate to say they're disappointed to be here," Decker said, "because I know they're competitors and any time you're going against a team that's 9-3, you're going to put aside your emotions and try to win regardless of whether you planned on being here or the national championship. But at the same time, we try to look at it as an advantage for us."

If Georgia really is disappointed at the prospects of playing Michigan State, it may not be all bad, fullback Brannan Southerland said. It could mean the Bulldogs play with a chip on their shoulder. It could mean they'll be focused on showing the country they were a better team this season than their record indicated. No matter what, he said, it's better to be on the side with the high expectations.

"I would rather be on this side where everyone's expecting big things out of us," Southerland said. "It just shows that we're held to a higher standard over here."

Step one in reaching that standard today will be slowing down the vaunted running game employed by the Spartans.

All-American tailback Javon Ringer is the country's most prolific runner, and Michigan State uses him early and often, so the Bulldogs know what to expect.

"I think a lot of teams knew that before the game, and he was still able to put up good numbers and be a top-three running back," Georgia cornerback Asher Allen said. "I think it's obviously just will against will, and hopefully we can come out and outplay him."

Georgia's run defense struggled down the stretch, too, but with the long gap between games, linebacker Rennie Curran said he hopes to see a revitalized commitment to stopping Ringer and showing Michigan State's attack.

"Having that extra time gave us the ability to refocus, get in the film room and study our mistakes, regroup and a team and get stronger," Curran said. "With that time, just having the ability to work on those fundamentals, we all just feel like we have something to prove."

Georgia has its own weapon at tailback, and Knowshon Moreno could be playing in his final game with the Bulldogs should he decide to opt out of his final two year's of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. The advantage for Georgia, however, is that the Bulldogs compliment Moreno with an equally prolific passing game.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford could be leaving early for the NFL, too, but his junior season has been a historic one for Georgia's passing game. Receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Massaquoi each could reach 1,000 yards for the season in today's game, a feat accomplished by just one other receiver in Georgia history.

"This is going to be the best receiving corps and this is going to be the most difficult receiving corps (we've faced this year)," Michigan State cornerback Ross Weaver said.

Whether the Spartans can keep pace with Georgia will be determined on the field, and Michigan State knows at kickoff, it will be the heavy underdog.

But while Georgia stands to lose a good bit of credibility should it fail to succeed as the favorite, the real motivation for the Bulldogs, Southerland said, is gaining back the credibility they had lost this season

"At the beginning of the year, we set out every year and have our big goals," Southerland said. "Unfortunately it didn't happen this year, but it's not all over. We want to go out and get this win."

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