ATHENS, Ga. - There is only one way Georgia can top the Sugar Bowl victory that capped its 13-win season.
The Bulldogs would have to win in New Orleans again next year.
A repeat visit to New Orleans is the goal for 2003, because the Sugar Bowl will be next season's national championship game.
Georgia, which finished No. 3 in both major polls released Saturday, will suffer significant senior losses on its offensive line and at linebacker. But it will return most of its skill position players, its secondary and at least most of its defensive line.
Georgia hopes are boosted by the momentum established in a 13-1 season, a recruiting class already considered one of the nation's best and the promise of stability that accompanies Coach Mark Richt's new eight-year contract agreement.
There is reason to believe Georgia's first Southeastern Conference title in
20 years and highest poll finish since its 1980 national championship are only a beginning.
"This was just one season, just one glorious season for us,'' Richt said after Wednesday night's 26-13 Sugar Bowl win over Florida State.
"These players have an attitude now, that they believe,'' Richt said. "You can tell they know how to work, they know how to fight, they're not going to be intimidated by anybody.''
Some of the team's most important players - SEC Player of the Year David Pollack, quarterback David Greene, receiver Fred Gibson, defensive end Will Thompson and rover Sean Jones - were only sophomores this season.
Two key juniors - defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan and tailback Musa
Smith - will consider entering the NFL draft.
Sullivan appears most likely to leave early, but returning at defensive tackle will be 2002 freshmen Darrius Swain, Gerald Anderson, Kedric Golston and Darrell Holmes and junior Ken Veal. Two other freshmen, Dale Dixson and Ray Gant, were redshirted this year.
Anderson, Swain and Veal are all 300-pounders who came on strong late in the year.
Said Sullivan, a potential first-round pick if he enters the NFL draft: "I might be a backup next year if I come back.''
Tailback would be a huge concern if Smith left, but Georgia has a verbal commitment from Kregg Lumpkin, a top recruit from Stephenson High School.
Tony Milton and Tyson Browning will be sophomores and Michael Cooper will be a redshirt freshman next season.
The area of most obvious need will be an offensive line which loses seven seniors, including Chris Hewitt, who still has one year of eligibility but does not plan to return.
Next season's offensive line will include no seniors or juniors. With three starts as a true freshman, guard Josh Brock will be the most experienced returning player on the unit.
True freshmen Max Jean-Gilles, Bartley Miller and Brock were pushed into the playing rotation with redshirt freshmen Russ Tanner and Dennis Roland. Brock, Tanner and Jean-Gilles, who played in every game, will be favored to win starting jobs.
Offensive line coach Neil Callaway also has big plans for two freshmen held out as redshirts, tackle Daniel Inman and center/guard Randall Swoopes.
By the end of the year, Callaway said there was little, if any, dropoff in blocking when Jean-Gilles, Brock and Tanner were on the field.
Two more returning offensive linemen are Reggie Weeks, who moved from the defensive line as a redshirt freshman as he continued his comeback from a serious 2001 knee injury, and Antonio Mercier, held out as a redshirt after he was diagnosed with diabetes last summer. Either could emerge this spring as a surprise.
The other big concern is linebacker, where seniors Tony Gilbert and Boss
Bailey were three-year starters. It is fitting the two may have finished in a tie for the team lead in tackles.
Bailey entered the game with a 109-106 lead over Gilbert in total tackles, and Sugar postgame stats credited Gilbert with 7.5 stops and Bailey with 4.5 tackles.
Georgia's official defensive stats, determined by the coaches' review of game film, have not been released.
Gilbert was trying to become only the first player to lead Georgia is tackles three straight years since Ben Zambiasi (1975-77).
Chris Clemons will return as a starter at one outside linebacker spot.
Thomas Davis, a big hitter who played at safety and linebacker this year and recorded two sacks in the Sugar Bowl, may be an option to replace Bailey at strongside linebacker.
Tony Taylor, Jamario Smith, Derrick White and Arnold Harrison also return at linebacker. A player to watch in the spring will be Marquis Elmore, who could land at end or linebacker after being redshirted this season.
Other lost starters include receiver Terrence Edwards, fullback J.T. Wall, punter Jonathan Kilgo and kickoff specialist Brett Kirouac.
"What happened this year, we're going to celebrate and enjoy, but we will have lost a tremendous amount of leadership and we'll have to find out who will lead us next year,'' Richt said.
Added Richt in a final press conference in New Orleans Thursday: "This year, the theme evolved around winning the SEC. ... We knew we had done something that hadn't been done in 20 years.
"Next year, (the national championship) is where our sights will be.''
For Richt, the only negative was beating his mentor, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, in the Sugar Bowl.
"I'd just as soon not play Coach Bowden again if I can help it,'' said Richt before adding "unless it's next year here. I'd take that.''