NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The Georgia Bulldogs can hardly wait for next season to get started.
That enthusiasm is understandable, considering they ended this season with a seven-game winning streak, have most of their key players returning and are counting on another top recruiting class.
All things considered, it adds up to a team that surely will be mentioned as part of the national championship race right from the start in 2008.
``I think we'll be at least No. 1 or 2 next year,'' linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said.
He wasn't the only one willing to talk boldly about the future after the Bulldogs dismantled Hawaii 41-10 Tuesday night in the Sugar Bowl.
After slogging through the first half of the season, which included a touchdown-less loss to South Carolina at home and a 21-point blowout at Tennessee, the Bulldogs looked unbeatable from mid-October on. They scored at least 40 points in four of their last seven games, while the defense displayed as much speed and quickness as any unit in the country.
Nearly all of the players who made it happen will be back next season, including running back Knowshon Moreno, quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, linebacker Rennie Curran and cornerback Asher Allen.
All were freshmen or sophomores in this 11-win year, which leaves plenty of room to grow and improve.
``We have a very young team and we got some valuable experience in a championship atmosphere,'' said Allen, who led the Bulldogs with nine tackles and had two of their four interceptions against previously unbeaten Hawaii. ``Hopefully next year we can get back and play in the championship game.''
Only six seniors started for Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, including game MVP Marcus Howard - a tour de force with three sacks, two forced fumbles and one recovery from a touchdown. The Bulldogs also bid farewell to running back Thomas Brown, center Fernando Velasco, offensive tackle Chester Adams, receiver Sean Bailey and safety Kelin Johnson.
But the list of returnees is staggering.
Starting on offense, Moreno rushed for more than 1,200 yards, even though he didn't take over the No. 1 job until midseason. Stafford had a solid season and showed the potential to put up much bigger numbers. Three freshmen - Trinton Sturtivant, Chris Davis and Clint Boling - started up front.
Turning to defense, Atkins, Jeff Owens and Roderick Battle lead a deep group of linemen who should have little trouble overcoming the loss of Howard. The entire linebacking corps returns, including freshman star-in-the-making Curran. The loss of Johnson notwithstanding, the secondary appears loaded with sophomores Allen and Prince Miller at the corners and freshman Reshad Jones ready to step in at safety.
Several promising freshmen didn't get on the field this season, including running back Caleb King. He is expected to take Brown's place in a potent 1-2 punch with Moreno. Plus, the Bulldogs have just about put the finishing touches on a recruiting class that should again rank among the top 10 nationally.
Coach Mark Richt, who might have done the best job of his career even though he no longer calls the offensive plays, certainly understands why everyone is so optimistic about 2008.
Then again, he knows the Southeastern Conference is primed for another strong year, with Florida and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow in the same division. Remember, every team in the league lost at least two games this season, including national finalist LSU, which arrived in New Orleans for next Monday's BCS championship game a few hours after the Bulldogs headed home.
``We're going to return a very good football team,'' Richt said. ``But in the Southeastern Conference, it doesn't matter how good you are, there's going to be at least seven, eight teams just as good as you are. And to think you can predict being in contention at the end is pretty brash. I'm not going to do that.
``But,'' he added, ``I do think we're going to have a more veteran team than we've had in a while, and I think we'll have some good depth, and I think we'll have a chance to make a run at it.''
If nothing else, the Bulldogs should start the season in the neighborhood of No. 1, an important factor in determining which teams get to play at the end. LSU and Ohio State both started the season highly ranked, which undoubtedly helped them overcome late-season losses when it came time to tally up the numbers.
Georgia didn't get a shot at the championship game, though it's clear the Bulldogs finished up playing as well as anyone, including the two finalists.
``We should have been No. 1,'' Howard said. ``We could have jumped Ohio State. I feel we had the hottest team in the nation toward the end of the season.''
And next season looks even better.

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