Georgia feels at home in Atlanta

Brady Quinn always had the talent, but it took the tutelage of Charlie Weis to elevate his performance.

Updated: January 2, 2006, 10:34 AM ET
Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Atlanta Falcons had barely finished their season when workers swarmed onto the Georgia Dome turf.

They painted the Nokia Sugar Bowl emblem at midfield. They adorned the stands with blue and yellow signs. They washed out the Falcons logos in each end zone, filling in the colors of Georgia and West Virginia.

With a bit of imagination, this could actually pass for the Superdome of years past.

Actually, it's a most unusual Sugar Bowl, forced out of New Orleans for the first time in its 72-year history by the devastating floods of Hurricane Katrina.

Instead of meeting in the Big Easy, No. 8 Georgia and 11th-ranked West Virginia had to settle for a Monday night matchup at the Georgia Dome, which underwent a harried makeover after the Falcons' final game.

It all seemed a bit surreal.

"Atlanta is a great town, but I know quite a few people in city of New Orleans," said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, a former Tulane assistant."When I left there, I always thought it would be great to go back to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl."

The Bulldogs (10-2) had no complaints about playing a major bowl just 75 miles from their Athens campus, in the very same stadium where they claimed their second Southeastern Conference championship in four years.

Georgia tried to make it feel like a home game, even scheduling a"Dawg Walk" so the players could enter the stadium through a cauldron of red and black -- just like they do between the hedges.

"We have had some great experiences in the Dome," coach Mark Richt said."Our fans have been fantastic in there. We will have a 'Dawg Walk' before the game, so we will try to mirror what we did in the SEC championship."

The Big East champion Mountaineers (10-1) realize what they're up against.

While a sizable contingent from West Virginia has descended on Atlanta, there's no doubt that Georgia is the de facto home team. The oddsmakers certainly feel that way, making the Bulldogs a solid touchdown favorite.

West Virginia quarterback Pat White summed it up best, saying he expects to find"a sea of red" when he trots on the field.

"It's pretty much a home game for them," the redshirt freshman said."We like the underdog role. They're an SEC school. Nobody expects us to do anything against them. We know we can go out and play with anybody on any given day."

The Sugar Bowl will finish off a three-games-in-four-days run for the Georgia Dome, which agreed to pinch-hit for the heavily damaged Superdome despite the hectic schedule.

After LSU blew out Miami in the Peach Bowl on Friday night, the stadium crew hustled to get things ready for Sunday's game between the Falcons and Carolina. As soon as the Panthers finished a 44-11 rout of Atlanta, it was time for another makeover -- with only about 28 hours to prepare for the Sugar Bowl.

Georgia has been to the Sugar more than any other bowl, but never one quite like this.

"It has been a little different with it being so close to home," said kicker Brandon Coutu, a native of the sprawling Atlanta suburbs.

A West Virginia victory would give a much-needed boost to the beleaguered Big East, which kept its automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series but took a huge blow when powerhouses Miami and Virginia Tech bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"Personally, I think it would be a big statement," freshman running back Steve Slaton said."A lot of people have us as underdogs. We proved ourselves so far this year, so we're ready to do it again."

The Mountaineers rely heavily on their two star freshmen. Slaton has 924 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns; White has run for 708 yards, passed for 875 and accounted for 14 touchdowns in all.

"They just stepped right in and kind of kept the ball rolling," fullback Owen Schmitt said."Stuff they pull out on the field, it's really exciting to watch. Even when you're on the field, you kind of almost stand still for a second and you're like, 'Wow."'

But Slaton and White haven't faced a defense with Georgia's speed, which begins up front and extends all the way through the secondary.

"They're freshmen," All-America safety Greg Blue said."We've just got to introduce them to how we play in the SEC."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press