Spring fever: Georgia

Mere months after losing star quarterback Peyton Manning as the first pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the Tennessee Vols surprised the football world by having a great season without him.

The same scenario could play out this fall for the Georgia Bulldogs, who saw star quarterback Matthew Stafford taken with the first pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

The '98 Vols rolled to a 13-0 record thanks to the superior leadership skills of Manning's successor, Tee Martin, plus a great supporting cast. Stafford's successor, Joe Cox, also has superior leadership skills and a great supporting cast.

That's not to suggest Georgia will win the national title – as Tennessee did in '98 – but there is a very good chance Mark Richt's '09 Bulldogs won't miss Stafford nearly as much as many observers suspect.

Cox, a fifth-year senior, is accustomed to waiting for his chance. Stuck behind Chris Leak at Charlotte's Independence High School, he guided the team to a 31-0 record after finally inheriting the starting job. Cox won his only college start to date (vs. Ole Miss in 2006), meaning he hasn't lost as a starting QB since his junior varsity days at Independence High back in 2002. And, for what it's worth, he completed 11 of 15 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns in backup action last fall.

Like Tee Martin, however, Cox must rely heavily on his supporting cast ... and it's a strong one. A.J. Green returns at wideout after leading the SEC with 963 receiving yards as a true freshman last fall. He'll be joined by freshman Marlon Brown, a ballyhooed prospect from Memphis.

The Dawgs obviously will miss first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno at tailback but the return of sophomore Caleb King and the entire first-team offensive line bodes well for the '09 ground game.

The defense returns six starters from last fall, plus two key players who missed 2008 due to injury – defensive tackle Jeff Owens and middle linebacker Marcus Washington. The guy to watch on defense, though, might be sophomore end Justin Houston, who registered three sacks in the spring game.

Georgia always excels in special-teams play, and 2009 projects to be no exception. Cannon-legged Blair Walsh returns as the placement specialist after connecting on 15 of 23 field goal tries last fall, with a long of 52 yards. Three of his 2008 misses came from 54 yards or beyond.

Bottom line: Georgia would project to be a serious SEC title contender in a normal year. Since Florida returns most of the key elements from last year's national title team, however, the Dawgs probably are playing for second place ... like everyone else in the league.

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