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Rivalry still strong
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ATLANTA — It was the end of another long practice day.

Georgia Tech players showed their fatigue as they walked slowly up the hill from their practice fields on the downtown Atlanta campus. The clapping sound of rubber cleats on pavement and sidewalks was the only substitute for conversation.

Suddenly, a pickup truck slowed down beside the procession of players, and a head popped out of the passenger window. The man's booming voice provided an Adrenalin rush that's difficult to match on this campus:

"Go Dogs!" the voice bellowed with a laugh from the truck.

Immediately, heads snapped up. More than one player took steps toward the truck, which already was leaving the scene, a red Georgia decal on its rear bumper providing a final mocking challenge.

Georgia Tech players have heard all jeers from Georgia fans during the Bulldogs' seven-game winning streak against the Yellow Jackets, a streak that helped get their last coach, Chan Gailey, fired.

Players on both sides insist the Bulldogs' recent dominance hasn't weakened the rivalry, which will be renewed Saturday when No. Georgia faces No. 18 Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech's motivation is obvious.

"We've gotta go out and win the game if it's going to become a rivalry," said first-year coach Paul Johnson. "We'll see if we're good enough. We'll go play and see. Most people would think we're not right now.

"I know we're not afraid. I know I'm not afraid. What's the worse thing we can do? Lose? Heck, we've done that. You just go play and see what happens. Our guys are excited to play."

Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran says the Bulldogs' incentive is just as strong.

"You never want to be that team that gives up the streak or loses to any team with the kind of tradition that this game has," Curran said.

Curran is a sophomore. For Georgia seniors, preserving the winning streak is most important.

"When you're a senior, it's bragging rights for life," said senior receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.

Georgia's winning streak in the series has come in Mark Richt's first seven years as coach.

For Georgia Tech, there's never a debate that this final regular-season game is the biggest of the year. Georgia Tech still has hopes of advancing to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Tampa, but the Yellow Jackets' season could be judged a real success only with a win over Georgia.

Gailey's Yellow Jackets won the Coastal Division and played in the 2006 ACC championship game in Jacksonville, but a 15-12 loss to an unranked Georgia team in Athens marred that finish.

Georgia Tech is 8-3 under Johnson, and the Yellow Jackets moved back into the Top 25 with a 41-23 win over Miami last Thursday.

Georgia Tech senior defensive tackle Darryl Richard said his team has a fresh start in the rivalry.

"I'm not about to play this game as if I'm 0-7," Richard said. "It's another new year with another new group of players, as well as a new coaching staff. The way we're looking at it right now, we're 0-0 against Georgia. People talk about what's gone on in the past. I can promise you, if they try to play us like we're Georgia Tech from the past, you're gonna be surprised."

Johnson hasn't been shy about diving into the rivalry.

About a week after he was hired from Navy in December, Johnson fired up Georgia Tech fans when he was handed a microphone at halftime of a basketball game.

"The one thing I have learned in those seven days is to hell with Georgia!" Johnson said, earning a standing ovation.

Taunts from both sides keep the rivalry sharp. Close games also help.

There were four lead changes in the first half of Georgia's 31-17 win last year. Georgia won the 2006 game on a touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Massaquoi with less than 2 minutes remaining. Georgia needed a last-minute interception by Tim Jennings to hold on for a 14-7 win in 2005.

Some Georgia fans might say annual border war Southeastern Conference games against Florida, Auburn and Tennessee have become more important than the Georgia Tech game.

Richt said its possible younger fans have been distracted by Georgia's winning streak over Georgia Tech.

He said it's "maybe a little bit older generation that is more consumed with it. I can understand why."
But Richt says "I'm always hearing from fans that want this game foremost."

"It's big, because everybody has to live with each other all year long," Richt said. "And it's tough because fans do like to talk, before, during and after, it seems.

"Some do hold their tongues but most like to jab at each other."

Georgia junior Rod Battle says motivation won't be a problem.

"I don't ever want to lose to them, and I've got some buddies who are seniors and I don't want them to lose to them," Battle said. "Since I've been here we haven't had to know what it feels like to lose to them, and I think that's our motivating factor.

"We don't ever want to lose to them."

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