ATHENS — Don’t tell Mark Richt that Georgia has nothing to gain and everything to lose in the Sugar Bowl.
Granted, the No. 4 Bulldogs (10-2) can expect little credit if, as expected, they knock off unbeaten Hawaii on New Year’s Day. That’s to be expected when a traditional powerhouse from the big, bad Southeastern Conference takes on a BCS-crashing school from the WAC.
But Richt knows this might as well be considered the first game of the 2008 season. If Georgia beats the Warriors for its seventh straight win, look for a very high ranking at the start of next season.
And a high position at the start of the year might help the Bulldogs avoid getting bumped out of the BCS title game, as they were this year.
"We have a lot to gain with this victory," Richt insisted Friday. "I think the underclassmen realize a victory here could set the stage for the future. The way the BCS is set up, it’s very important where you’re ranked in the preseason. I hate to say that much about it, but that’s the way it is."
LSU was the lucky dog among a host of two-loss teams that felt they deserved a shot at facing No. 1 Ohio State in the BCS championship game. The Tigers were highly ranked at the start of the season and stayed in contention even while losing a pair of triple-overtime games to Kentucky and Arkansas.
Both Georgia losses came in the first half of the season, but the Bulldogs weren’t as highly ranked in the early going. When they failed to qualify for the SEC championship game, losing the division title in a tiebreaker with lower-ranked Tennessee, that sealed their fate.
Senior Marcus Howard wants to leave something for his alma mater in its final game — a better shot at winning the national title next season. The Bulldogs have plenty of talent returning next season, including quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno.
"We want to set the guys up for next year," Howard said. "If we win, we’ll definitely be top three to start next year with all the guys we’ve got coming back."
While Hawaii’s emergence has been compared to Boise State’s run a year ago, Richt is more likely to remind his players of what happened at the end of the 2005 season. Georgia won its second SEC title in four years and was heavily favored to beat Big East champion West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl — especially since it was played at the Georgia Dome while New Orleans recovered from Hurricane Katrina, making it a virtual home game for the Bulldogs.
Nevertheless, the Mountaineers raced to a big lead in the opening quarter and held off the Bulldogs 38-35.
"No one gave them much of a chance to win that game," center Fernando Velasco recalled. "But they beat us pretty handily. We don’t want it to happen again."
The high-scoring Warriors, led by former Falcons coach June Jones, hope to follow in Boise State’s footsteps from a year ago. The Broncos knocked off Oklahoma in a thrilling Fiesta Bowl to complete an unbeaten season and prove the little guys can keep up with the power leagues.
Georgia, a touchdown favorite, wants to avoid the same fate as the Sooners.
"I’m not sure we have much to prove," running back Thomas Brown said. "All the media hype says Georgia should win. If we win, we’re not going to get much credit for it. But if we lose, we’ll surely hear about it."
While Hawaii may have a bit of a motivational edge, the Bulldogs will be playing with a chip on their shoulder, too. They felt as worthy as anyone else of getting a shot at the national title.
"We’ve still got that little ache in our stomach about not being able to go for the national championship," Howard said. "We thought we should have moved up to No. 2, but it didn’t happen."