- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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While the season doesn't kick off until August, the 2008 talk is building as the pads are popping in spring practice. Around Athens, a run at the national championship is expected. The folks in Columbia are anticipating a Big 12 title. In Madison, they're counting on a Big Ten crown.
Take a quick look at Georgia, Missouri and Wisconsin as they prepare for seasons branded with great expectations:
Georgia focusing on the moment
ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps no college football team in the country has created as much preseason buzz as Georgia, which returns 15 starters from a team that finished 11-2 last season, including a 31-point trouncing of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.
Even after the Bulldogs' first practice of the spring on March 3, a reporter playfully asked coach Mark Richt if his team looked like national champions.
"We have a new saying here at Georgia -- focus on the moment," Richt said. "That's what we're going to do."
The moment has never seemed brighter for the Bulldogs. Tailback Knowshon Moreno returns for his sophomore season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Quarterback Matthew Stafford returns for his third season as a starter. The bulk of the offensive line and receiver corps also are back.
Even Richt senses his team seems a little more excited this spring.
"I don't think it's the national championship [talk]," Richt said. "I think they're excited because they look around and see that we have a chance to be pretty good if everybody does what they're supposed to do. I'm excited about that. You've got to work to earn the right to be good."
If Georgia is going to be as good as many people believe it might be in 2008, Richt and his coaching staff will have to find replacements for top pass rusher Marcus Howard, MVP of the Sugar Bowl, and hard-hitting safety Kelin Johnson. The Bulldogs return nine starters on defense.
Georgia has never started a season ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 3 at the start of the 2004 season and finished No. 7 with a 10-2 record.
"Rumor has it we're going to be No. 1," center Chris Davis said. "It's a two-sided door with the complacency thing; you don't want to get complacent, but you want to go into the season with confidence. Last year ended with controversy. This year, if we don't make it to the national championship game, it's going to be our fault because we're going to start the season ranked really high."
Tigers have something to prove
As Missouri readies for the 2008 season with spring practice, Tigers quarterback Chase Daniel can't believe the 2007 season ever ended.
"It seems like it was only a bye week since the last time we were out there," Daniel said. "We're not used to playing in bowl games so late."
Most Missouri football fans never wanted last season to end. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the country after beating Kansas 36-28 in their last regular-season game, a victory that also propelled Missouri to No. 1 in the BCS standings.
But when Missouri lost to Oklahoma 38-17 in the Big 12 title game, the Tigers lost more than a chance at playing in the BCS National Championship Game. Despite an 11-2 record, Missouri was left out of a lucrative BCS bowl game. Kansas was invited to play Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl instead of Missouri, and the Tigers routed Arkansas 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl.
With the 2007 season finally in his rearview mirror, Daniel said the Tigers might have to prove to many people that last season wasn't a fluke.
"I think a lot of people might think that," Daniel said. "When you go from 8-5 to 12-2, that's a big improvement. Our motivation is being as good of a football team as we can be. We're ready to go."
With Daniel returning for his senior season, the Tigers are in much better position to repeat their unexpected success of 2007. Last season, Daniel threw for 4,306 yards with 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
The Tigers' top priority this spring is replacing tailback Tony Temple, who ran 1,039 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. All-American tight end Martin Rucker and center Adam Spieker, a second-team All-American, will have to be replaced, too.
But with so much experience returning -- tight end Chase Coffman and safety William Moore also returned to school after considering the NFL draft -- the Tigers figure to be the favorites in the Big 12 North.
That's fine with Daniel, who said he returned to Missouri to accomplish even bigger things.
"It's huge for me, personally," Daniel said. "I'm going into my fourth year and I still have some things to prove."
Badgers embracing high expectations
Last season was supposed to be the year Wisconsin challenged Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten.
Instead, the Badgers not only finished 2007 behind the Wolverines and Buckeyes but also upstart Illinois, which beat Wisconsin and played in the Rose Bowl.
After a 9-4 season in 2007, in which the Badgers lost two of their first four Big Ten games and finished 5-3 in league play, coach Bret Bielema isn't about to lower his program's expectations.
"A common question I get with this program is, 'Bret, how you doing with the expectations, the high expectations?'" Bielema said. "I say all the time, 'I'd rather deal with high expectations than low expectations.' I want our guys to have a higher standard than a low standard."
The Badgers backslid a bit in Bielema's second season as coach. After finishing 12-1 in the coach's first season in 2006, Wisconsin was undone by a defense that allowed 30 points or more in six games.
Bielema fired defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and replaced him with Dave Doeren, who was a co-coordinator last season. With nine returning starters on defense, Bielema believes the defense can improve quickly.
"I think there were a lot of guys individually who didn't feel that they lived up to the way that they could play," Bielema said.
"We had good enough players and a good enough scheme to play better than we did," said cornerback Shane Carter.
Offensively, the Badgers will have to replace quarterback Tyler Donovan, who threw for 2,607 yards with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge is the leading candidate to do so.
The Badgers' new quarterback will have a crowded backfield behind him. Junior P.J. Hill, who ran for 1,569 yards as a freshman and 1,212 yards last season, is finally healthy. Lance Smith, Zach Brown and highly regarded freshman John Clay also are competing for carries.
"I'm super excited," Evridge said. "Last year was a great learning experience for me as far as football and life and all those things. It's fun to get back out there. It's been a long time coming, that's for sure."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.
The season doesn't kick off until August, but Georgia, Missouri and Wisconsin already are dealing with growing expectations.