ATLANTA — Paul Johnson says it’s no bigger than any other game, certainly not as important as the one next week.
Try telling that to his players.
State pride is a pretty powerful motivator.
No. 7 Georgia Tech (10-1) will be going for its second straight victory over Georgia when the teams meet tonight at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and anyone who thinks this is merely a warmup for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship doesn’t understand how deep the feelings run in this rivalry.
“This is a big game in the state of Georgia,” Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “This is for the bragging rights. If we lose to them before we play in the ACC championship, they would be like, ‘An SEC team beat the team that is going for the ACC championship.’ They’d be talking about that years from now.”
The Bulldogs (6-5) are eager to put a salve on their disappointing season, and nothing would feel better than to beat the school from 75 miles away that has become a national powerhouse in Johnson’s two years as coach.
“To be able to finish up against a really good team with a win can change a lot of things,” Georgia quarterback Joe Cox said. “We know how important this game is and know what it can do for us if we do win.”
When Johnson arrived, Georgia Tech had lost seven straight years to Georgia, leaving little doubt about which school was top dog. But the series quickly took a dramatic turn, the tone changed by the ultra-confident architect of the spread option offense.
Johnson never looked at Georgia as unbeatable, and his bravado didn’t change the first time he faced them — even when the Bulldogs built a 28-12 halftime lead. Georgia Tech scored 26 straight points in the third quarter and held on for a 45-42 victory, its first in the series since 2000. Several players broke off pieces of Sanford Stadium’s famous hedge as souvenirs.
“It has been tough. We’re definitely not used to losing to Georgia Tech,” Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran said. “Seeing pictures of them with pieces of our hedges is a weird feeling.”
Coming off a nine-win season in Johnson’s debut, the Yellow Jackets soared even higher in year two, putting them one win away from their first undisputed ACC title since 1990.
Star running back Jonathan Dwyer had another big season (1,203 yards), Thomas leads the conference in receiving yards and gritty quarterback Josh Nesbitt might be the most valuable player of all, running for 16 TDs and throwing for eight more. Derrick Morgan has been the star of a bend-but-not-break defense, pacing the ACC with 12 1/2 sacks despite persistent double-teaming.
Johnson downplayed what it would mean to beat Georgia.
“I think you’re putting them on a pretty high pedestal if all you want to do it beat one team and that defines your season,” he said. “Do you think beating Georgia Tech defines their season? I’ll bet if you ask them, they would say no. It’s an important game. I don’t want to diminish that. But let’s not get too carried away.”
Well, actually coach, Georgia would get a huge boost this season from knocking off the Yellow Jackets.
The Bulldogs already are assured of their worst season since coach Mark Richt took over in 2001. The red-and-black faithful are complaining loudly about the direction of the program and calling on Richt to make major changes on his staff, starting with defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
Clearly, Georgia has slipped since winning two Southeastern Conference titles in Richt’s first five seasons, and finishing 2007 ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Last year, the Bulldogs started out at No. 1 but wound up as the second-best team in their own state. This season, as Florida and Alabama continued to dominate the SEC and Georgia was routed by Lane Kiffin’s up-and-coming Tennessee program, there was even more cause for concern.
The Bulldogs have become a mistake-prone, undisciplined team that appears to have plenty of talent but little direction.
They have the nation’s second-worst turnover ratio, a flaw that was on full display a week ago when four second-half giveaways led to a shocking home loss to Kentucky.
In addition, Georgia also is one of the country’s most penalized teams.
“With the talent they have and the kind of guys they recruit every year, you expect them to just be dominant,” Dwyer said. “A lot of things have not gone their way. I’m sure there’s a lot of hostility in them. They’re going to come in here fired up. We’ve got to be ready to play.”
Always looking for a motivational edge, Johnson has apparently been telling his players that everyone views last year’s game as a fluke, that Georgia Tech’s comeback victory was more the result of Georgia’s mistakes than what the Yellow Jackets did. Several players expressed those sentiments when asked if beating the Bulldogs gave them a mental edge this year.
“We still have that feeling people don’t believe,” Dwyer said. “We still have that mindset of staying hungry. We want to have the perfect season. This season is not over with. Winning these next few games would just complete the season.”