Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan led the Falcons 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 the 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 Smiths run-first philosophy to rank among the leagues 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.
Ive stated before when you dont lose back-to-back games in this league, youre going to get to December and look up youre 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 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 won nine games in the regular season and ended a seven-year losing streak against Georgia.
Sophomore quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running back Jonathan Dwyer were good fits as the top running threats in Johnsons 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 Georgia 45-42 in Athens.
Growing up, all I heard about was how great Georgia was, Jones said. Its 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 seasons final poll.
Georgia was the preseason No. 1 pick in The Associated Press poll, but Stafford and Moreno couldnt overcome injuries and a lack of experience on the offensive line.
Lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida sent Georgia tumbling in the poll. The Bulldogs disappointing regular season was capped by the teams loss to the Yellow Jackets, who collected clippings from the hedges on their way off the Sanford Stadium field.
Georgia and Georgia Tech each finished 9-3 in the regular season.
Georgia will play Michigan State in Thursdays Capital One Bowl in Orlando. It could be the farewell for Stafford and Moreno, who are considering leaving school early to enter the NFL draft.
Georgia Tech, still celebrating the drought-busting win over Georgia, will face LSU in Wednesday nights Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome.
Georgia Tech wasnt the only drought-breaker in the state.
The Atlanta Hawks closed the 2007-08 season with their first playoff appearance since 1999. The Hawks excited home fans and gained national respect by pushing the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the playoffs.
The Hawks looked even stronger at the start of the 2008-09 season, their first full season with point guard Mike Bibby. Bibby has been the answer to a longtime problem spot, providing steady leadership and 3-point shooting.
Another key for the Hawks return to the postseason was center Al Horford, the teams best draft pick in recent years. Horford, always a threat to post a double-double, was the only unanimous choice on last seasons NBA All-Rookie team. Meanwhile, guard Joe Johnson was an All-Star and the teams top scorer.
While the Hawks continued their move up, the Atlanta Braves fell flat, losing 90 games to finish fourth in their division, 20 games out of first place and out of the playoffs for the third straight year.
The Braves hopes for a winning season were lost in a wave of injuries to starting pitchers Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton. Of the four former 20-game winners, only Hampton was healthy at the end of the season, but he then signed with Houston.
Braves fans at least could cheer for Chipper Jones, who hit .364 to win the NL batting title. Jones made two trips to the disabled list with a hamstring injury and played in only 128 games. He will celebrate his 37th birthday in the opening month of the season.
Jones was productive when healthy, but he had too little support. Jeff Francoeur struggled all season, hitting only .239 with 11 home runs, leaving the Braves outfielders last in the major leagues with only 27 homers. Francoeur hit only two homers after the All-Star break.
The Atlanta Thrashers also suffered a disappointing year, finishing the 2007-08 season as the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference and third-worst overall. General manager Don Waddell fired coach Bob Hartley after an 0-6 start and spent the rest of the year on the bench.
The Thrashers led the Southeast as late as Feb. 16, but their season turned when it became clear they wouldnt be able to re-sign forward Marian Hossa. After contract talks broke down, Waddell traded the star forward to Pittsburgh.
The Hossa trade left Ilya Kovalchuk without an important offensive complement to help the team overcome obvious defensive problems.
Waddell hired John Anderson as the new coach in the offseason, but the Thrashers struggles continued early in the 2008-09 season.
One of the years biggest surprises was Georgia winning the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament in Atlanta. After a tornado passed through Atlanta, damaging the Georgia Dome during a game, the tournament shifted to Georgia Techs Alexander-Memorial Coliseum.
In that unlikely setting of its in-state rivals home court, Georgia swept through the tournament to land a spot in the NCAA tournament after finishing only 13-16 overall and 4-12 in the SEC in the regular season.
Georgia Tech missed the NCAA tournament after finishing 15-17. Georgia and Georgia Tech made the NCAA womens field, with Georgia Tech falling in the first round and Georgia winning one game before falling to North Carolina.
Georgias baseball team came close to a national championship, losing to Fresno State in the College World Series final.
Georgia Tech suffered a tragedy when pitcher Michael Hutts died from a heroin overdose in his apartment on April 11, according to the medical examiners report. The Yellow Jackets won 41 games before losing to Georgia in the NCAA Super Regional in Athens.
The economy hit two major events in the state.
The Tour de Georgia canceled its 2009 race because of financial struggles. The seven-day race, billed as North Americas premier professional cycling event, could return in 2010.
Atlanta lost the PGA Tour event it held since 1967. AT&T dropped its sponsorship of the tournament that had been held at TPC Sugarloaf in suburban Duluth since 1997. The season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club was left as the citys only remaining PGA event.
Camilo Villegas won this years Tour Championship by making six birdies over the last 11 holes of regulation and then beating Sergio Garcia in a playoff.
Former University of Georgia golfer Ryuji Imada won the final AT&T Classic, beating Kenny Perry in a playoff