From #1 to UnderDawgs

ATHENS – When Joe Cox made the trip to Birmingham to meet with reporters at the SEC's annual preseason media event, he had a pretty good idea of what to expect. He had already spent months answering the same question over and over.

A year ago, Georgia was the consensus pick as the nation's best team, but this season, the stars are gone. Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Asher Allen left early for the NFL, seniors who had been key contributors for years are gone, and this season, few pundits are expecting much from the Bulldogs.

As it turns out, Cox wouldn't have it any other way.

"Our expectations haven't changed," Cox said. "We know a lot of people are probably overlooking us, and that's probably the best thing for us."

The tempered national expectations have fueled a successful offseason for the Bulldogs.

Before earning preseason No. 1 status last year, nearly a dozen players landed in hot water off the field. Several players were arrested, more were suspended and three were released from the team.

This year, things have been different. The leadership has been dramatically better, attendance at voluntary offseason workouts and the camaraderie in the locker room formed around a team concept that head coach Mark Richt has worked to instill since January.

"I think a year ago, just in general, when you have what people consider stars like Knowshon and Matthew, they think you're going to win a national championship," Richt said. "Conversely, now that they're gone, they won't give us much chance to win a national championship. We know that football takes more than two guys."

More than just isolating their stars last year, the Bulldogs bought in to some of the hype surrounding the team.

"Last year, we thought a lot of things were going to be handed to us, and we took a lot for granted," receiver A.J. Green said. "This year, we're just going to work hard and a lot of people are trying to doubt us, so that gives us even more motivation to come out and do good things."

It's more than just a new chemistry in the locker room.

On the field, the losses of Stafford, Moreno and so many other productive players from a year ago have left a gaping void. Cox has started just one game before this season. Only Green and Michael Moore have more than a dozen career receptions. No tailback on the roster has enjoyed more than minimal game-day success.

Richt admits the statistics might make Georgia's future appear grim, but his philosophy is that the sum of the Bulldogs' new faces is greater than the individual parts.

"I think our team understands the only chance they have is to play together, work together, earn it as a team," Richt said. "I think they've done a great job of buying into that, preparing throughout this offseason for that type of season, so I'm excited."

Georgia's players are excited, too. The pressure is off this season, the expectations are low, and the morale is better.

The Bulldogs would like to be favorites again, but for now, senior Jeff Owens said, they're happy working to prove the critics wrong.

"Last year we were more uptight being No. 1," Owens said. "This year, it's more laid back. We're the underdogs."


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