ATLANTA — This was supposed to be the year the Georgia Bulldogs competed for a national championship. Instead, the Atlanta Falcons were the state’s football success story of the year.
Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan led the Falcons (11-5) to an unexpected one-year turnaround from last place to the playoffs.
Ryan amazed observers with his cool demeanor. Ryan, the No. 3 overall draft pick from Boston College, started every game and seemed oblivious to pressures that overwhelm most rookie quarterbacks.
It helped that Ryan could hand the ball to running back Michael Turner, the former San Diego backup who signed a six-year contract with $15 million in guarantees.
Turner took advantage of first-year coach Mike Smith’s run-first philosophy to rank among the league’s leaders in rushing yards and touchdowns. Turner and receiver Roddy White earned Pro Bowl bids, Ryan was selected as an alternate and veteran end John Abraham ranked among the league leaders in sacks.
"I’ve stated before when you don’t lose back-to-back games in this league, you’re going to get to December and look up — you’re going to have an opportunity to get into the (playoffs)," Smith said. "I think that is probably the biggest thing for this football team, we never had lost more than one game in a row."
Georgia Tech was another surprise success story. First-year coach Paul Johnson, the former Georgia Southern coach, laughed off skeptics who doubted his triple-option offense would work in a major conference. The offense proved difficult to stop as the Yellow Jackets (9-3) won nine games in the regular season and ended a seven-year losing streak against Georgia (9-3).
Sophomore quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running back Jonathan Dwyer were good fits as the top running threats in Johnson’s option attack. Roddy Jones, a freshman, added a career-best 214 yards rushing and two touchdowns as Georgia Tech rallied from a deficit of 16 points to beat host Georgia 45-42.
"Growing up, all I heard about was how great Georgia was," Jones said. "It’s great to be part of a team that ends the streak."
Another strength for Georgia Tech was a big-play defensive line led by three seniors, including end Michael Johnson.
Georgia returned quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno from a 2007 team which finished the season with seven straight wins, including a lopsided Sugar Bowl win over Hawaii that left the Bulldogs No. 2 in last season’s final poll.
Georgia was the preseason No. 1 pick in The Associated Press poll, but Stafford and Moreno couldn’t overcome injuries and a lack of experience on the offensive line.