ORLANDO, Fla. - Georgia will not face the pressure of being the preseason No. 1 football team again in 2009.
If quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno decide to turn pro in the next few days, the Bulldogs may not even begin in the top 15. Yet despite the program's expected reduction in national perception, Georgia coaches are not reducing their goals in what will be Mark Richt's ninth season.
"I believe we've got players here and guys who are going to step up," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said after Thursday's 24-12 Capital One Bowl win over Michigan State. "You saw the future today of guys stepping up and making plays in a big game when things were tight and not going well. They just played great."
Though Stafford threw 31 times and Moreno rushed 23 times and was the only tailback with a carry, others factored into the win over the Spartans. Junior receiver Michael Moore had six catches for 97 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown, and redshirt freshman tight end Aron White had a 21-yard score.
Stafford, Moreno, senior split end Mohamed Massaquoi and freshman flanker A.J. Green comprised the most productive offensive quartet in school history this season, but only Green is certain to return.
"Our expectations next year will be to make big plays, and we're going to give people the chance to make big plays," Bobo said. "I think we've got that kind of talent here, and I think we're going to recruit some more talent."
Not only were Georgia coaches pleased with clinching a sixth 10-win season in the past seven years, but they also were thrilled with how their players prepared. Many of the bowl practices were in full pads and involved quality contact, something the team missed most of the season due to injuries.
"In some ways we were blessed in that more guys got opportunities," Richt said, "and they've proven they can play and feel better about themselves. There are a lot of good things that can come of this."
Said defensive coordinator Willie Martinez: "We played a lot of our young guys in bowl practice and just got invaluable experience there. I thought that was great."
Georgia's defense next season could include 10 players with previous starting experience. Roderick Battle, Geno Atkins, Jeff Owens and Demarcus Dobbs have started in the line, as have Akeem Dent, Darryl Gamble and Rennie Curran at linebacker and Prince Miller, Reshad Jones and Asher Allen in the secondary.
The only exception should be at strong safety, where senior CJ Byrd must be replaced.
All five starters return on the offensive line, but who will be playing behind them remains the multimillion-dollar question. Should Stafford and Moreno join Massaquoi in the NFL draft pool, the Bulldogs will be seeking leadership skills in addition to offensive effectiveness.
"I'm definitely trying to fill a void next season," Moore said.
ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd said on his national show Friday that Stafford is "way overrated" and could be as big of a bust as former LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Cowherd described the 6-foot-3, 228-pounder as a little pudgy and wildly inconsistent.
"Matthew Stafford makes the same mistakes this year that he's made for three years," Cowherd said. "That's a coachability issue. The kid at Alabama has half the talent but is a lot more consistent and coachable."