Georgia meets West Va. in Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl
ATLANTA -- Georgia is heading back to the Nokia Sugar Bowl, which is essentially another home game this season.
After winning the Southeastern Conference championship with an upset of LSU, the eighth-ranked Bulldogs were formally invited to the bowl on Sunday for their first-ever meeting against No. 11 West Virginia.
Normally held in New Orleans, the Jan. 2 bowl was transplanted to Atlanta's Georgia Dome after the Louisiana Superdome was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina and overrun by thousands of flood victims seeking refuge in the storm's aftermath.
"It's going to be a little bit different because it's in a different city, but we love Atlanta," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We would have been excited to go back to New Orleans, because we love it there, but of course that's not going to happen."
Making their second Sugar Bowl appearance in four years, the Bulldogs (10-2) will only have to travel about 75 miles from their Athens campus to meet the Big East champion Mountaineers (10-1). It will be Georgia's third straight game in Atlanta, following a 14-7 victory over Georgia Tech and the 34-14 rout of LSU in the SEC championship game Saturday night.
"It's going to feel real good to come back to Atlanta," said cornerback DeMario Minter, a native of the city's sprawling suburbs.
Georgia will be playing in its eighth Sugar Bowl, far more than it's been to any other postseason game. The Bulldogs' most memorable trip to New Orleans came at the end of their perfect 1980 season, when they clinched the national championship with a victory over Notre Dame.
With Georgia in its transplanted game, the Sugar Bowl should find it easier to sell out the 75,000-seat stadium. The game had to completely revamp its ticket-selling program after deciding to move out of Louisiana this season.
"The demand for the tickets now is very, very high," said Paul Hoolahan, executive director of the Sugar Bowl. "We are in a situation where we are not trying to sell tickets, we're trying to manage tickets."
West Virginia will be making its first BCS appearance and playing in its third Sugar Bowl. The Mountaineers lost to Georgia Tech in 1954 and Florida in 1994.
"We're very excited," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "With a young team, we didn't know what was going to happen this year and the expectations certainly weren't very high."
The Mountaineers got big contributions from quarterback Pat White, a redshirt freshman, and first-year running back Steve Slaton. White rushed for 875 yards, scored seven touchdowns and threw for seven more. Slaton led the team with 924 yards on the ground, scoring 14 touchdowns in just nine games.
"We lost a lot of guys to graduation last year, so we realized there wasn't going to be a lot of talk about us winning the Big East this year," Rodriguez said. "It was neat to watch them come together."
Georgia overcame low expectations, as well. Picked to finish third in the SEC East, the Bulldogs won their first seven games and built up enough of a cushion to overcome back-to-back losses -- by a total of five points -- to conference foes Florida and Auburn.
"The guys were a little bit hurt that nobody gave us much of a chance," Richt said. "They took it a little personal."
Georgia already is assured of its fourth straight 10-win season, matching the most successful run in school history.
"I would like to think we've had enough success in the last few years that people at least know we're putting a pretty good team on the field," Richt said. "I think our fan base understands that winning the Southeastern Conference is difficult to do."
West Virginia had tied for the Big East championship the last two years, but didn't get the league's BCS spot. The Mountaineers made it this year in the downgraded league, which suffered a major blow to its football prestige when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College fled to the Atlantic Coast Conference in recent years.
West Virginia's only loss was to Virginia Tech, its former Big East rival. The Mountaineers closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak, including a 46-44 thriller against preseason favorite Louisville.
Rodriguez knows that Georgia will likely have a noticeable crowd advantage, although West Virginia has a loyal fan base that travels in big numbers.
"I'm sure the place will be sold out, and it will be loud and exciting," he said. "I'm sure it will get our guys juiced up."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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