NEW ORLEANS — Even in the wackiest of seasons, no one could have seen this Sugar Bowl coming.
Georgia appeared down and out at the midway point, licking its wounds after a listless 21-point defeat at Tennessee. Coach Mark Richt wouldn’t even talk about goals such as conference championships or major bowls, figuring both were out of reach with the Bulldogs’ second defeat.
Not so fast. Georgia (10-2) hasn’t lost since and might be playing as well as any team in the country.
Five time zones west of Athens, Hawaii put together perhaps the most neglected perfect season in college football history. The Warriors (12-0) play most of their games after the rest of the country goes to bed; when everyone finally woke up, they found an unlikely interloper as part of the Bowl Championship Series.
On Tuesday night, these two disparate teams will meet for the first time, a traditional Southeastern Conference powerhouse taking on an up-and-coming program from paradise.
It just might be the most intriguing game on the postseason schedule, certainly a worthy warmup to the BCS title game six days later on the same Superdome field.
"They’re undefeated, so I know they’re approaching this as a championship game," Georgia defensive end Marcus Howard said. "We were one of the hottest teams toward the end of the year and felt like we should have been in the BCS."
Even without a national title on the line, it’s a fascinating story line:
— Can the Warriors, who went undefeated against an unimpressive schedule that included teams such as Northern Colorado, Charleston Southern and Idaho, cope with an opponent that knocked off defending national champion Florida and three other bowl-bound teams during its six-game winning streak?
— How will Georgia’s defense fare against Heisman Trophy finalist Colt Brennan and the rest of Hawaii’s run-and-shoot offense, which is unlike anything the Bulldogs have faced all season?
— Will the Bulldogs take offense when Hawaii does its traditional Polynesian war dance before the game? Can the Warriors counter the emotional boost Georgia expects to get from donning its black jerseys?
"I really don’t have a good feel for how it’s going to go," Richt said Monday. "We haven’t played them before. We haven’t played anybody like them. Their style of football is very different from anyone we’ve played. I imagine we’re a lot different from most people they’ve played."
Hawaii can take hope from last year’s Fiesta Bowl, when another unbeaten team from the Western Athletic Conference knocked off a big-time school from one of the elite conferences. Boise State’s thrilling overtime win against Oklahoma was a victory for all the little guys.
The Warriors are eager to show it wasn’t a fluke.
"No one gave Boise a chance. They thought Oklahoma would overpower them," Hawaii linebacker Solomon Elimimian said. "It didn’t happen like that. The team that wanted it more and had the most heart came out on top."
Georgia showed plenty of heart after its three-touchdown loss to Tennessee, a game that was especially troubling to Richt because his team played with so little emotion.
After escaping with a last-second win at Vanderbilt, Richt vowed to do something — anything — to fire his team up.
The laid-back coach, who comes across at times as downright boring, made it clear he expected his players to draw a celebration penalty after their first touchdown against Florida. The Bulldogs took it a step farther — the entire team stormed the end zone, providing an emotional boost that carried them to a rare victory over the Gators.
Richt was at it again before the Auburn game, asking the Georgia faithful to wear black instead of their traditional red for a Sanford Stadium "blackout." After spending the entire week coyly dodging questions about what color his players would wear, the coach sent them out in red for warmups — then broke out black jerseys for the game. The Bulldogs romped to a 45-20 win.
"This year was kind of a surprise," senior running back Thomas Brown conceded. "I thought I was on a different team."
The Bulldogs will wear black again at the Sugar Bowl.
The changes can actually be traced to late last season, when Richt turned over the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. With more free time on his hands, Richt is able to keep a better handle on his team’s pulse.
"This year, he showed more emotion than he has in years past," Brown said. "Everybody’s having more fun."
Brennan certainly has plenty of fun in Hawaii’s high-octane offense. Even slowed by injuries, he managed to make it to New York as one of the Heisman finalists after passing for 4,174 yards and 38 touchdowns.
The Warriors rarely run the ball (they’ve thrown it nearly 70 percent of the time), counting on Brennan to keep the team moving with quick, accurate throws. He has plenty of potential targets, including two guys, Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen, with 100 receptions and three receivers — add Jason Rivers — who’ve accounted for 1,000 yards apiece.
"They’re going to get their yards," Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. "But you don’t want to give up a ton of yards. You want to make them work their way down the field."
Georgia will rely on its running game to keep Brennan on the sideline as much as possible. Redshirt freshman Knowshon Moreno rushed for 1,273 yards, while Brown chipped in with 706 despite missing three games with an injury.
Moreno has been slowed by a sprained ankle since the regular-season finale, though he has looked fine in practice the past few days. Brown, a senior playing his final college game, will get the start.
While Hawaii would certainly benefit from facing a less-than-100-percent Moreno, coach June Jones is concerned about how his team will react playing the biggest game in school history.
"We’ve had big games, but not like this one," he said. "This is like a Super Bowl to us."
A Super ... make that Sugar Bowl no one saw coming.