Football rivalries have unbelievable plots this year

The college football season is defined by 12 weeks. The whole is the sum of all the parts played out over three months.


We understand that. But when they speak of the 2008 season around these parts, the tone of the conversation will be decided by the events of this Saturday.

Georgia plays Georgia Tech. Clemson plays South Carolina. One game among a dozen that will qualify the relative success or failure of the rest.

"This is absolutely the biggest game of the year right now against Georgia Tech," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team has already played the No. 1 and 2 teams in the current Associated Press poll.

These are in-state rivalry games pitting the Southeastern against the Atlantic Coast conferences, and teams and fans have to live with the results among hostile neighbors from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving. It's a long time or all too short, depending on the perspective.

There is no way people could have presumed the plot lines that have emerged since this whole thing started in August. Who would have thought that such a promising Clemson team would be desperately seeking bowl eligibility under an interim coach in the season finale against a South Carolina squad trying to upgrade its New Year's plans?

But the events in Death Valley won't be half as compelling as the matchup going on simultaneously at Sanford Stadium. That's where the preseason No. 1 team that failed to win its SEC division will face the presumed doormat still eligible to win its ACC division.

"If you said at the beginning of the year that this could be a close game, most people would have said you were nuts," said Paul Johnson, the first-year coach at Georgia Tech. "I mean, one team was picked to win three games and the other was preseason No. 1 in the country. Here we are and who knows. That's why you don't play the games on paper."

Georgia fans have become accustomed to beating Georgia Tech since Mark Richt arrived. They needed a couple of Reggie Ball fiascos to maintain a perfect 7-0 mark this millennium, but there has been no doubt which has been the better program.

Saturday's game, however, is very much in doubt. Georgia has been unimpressive in its most recent two wins over inferior foes. The Bulldogs are not in the same positive frame of mind that carried them to the final No. 2 ranking last year.

Georgia Tech, however, is something else. While their ACC title fate rests in the hands of another in-state rivalry game played three states up the road in Virginia, this is very much a statement game for Johnson's brand of football and what it can do to elevate the clean, old- fashioned hate of this series.

"All we can do is go out and play and we'll see if we're good enough," Johnson said. "Most people probably think we're not right now. My job as the coach here is to get us to the point where we are the favorite."

There have been various degrees of shock and awe regarding Georgia Tech's success thus far -- a count that improved to 7-4 with an emphatic victory over Miami last Thursday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

What is most surprising is that everybody seems so surprised. It's as if Georgia Tech getting tagged with a top-20 ranking and hunting for an ACC title is akin to Vanderbilt qualifying for a bowl bid or something.

I mean, Georgia Tech has won at least seven games for something like 91 consecutive years. The Jackets have been to umpteen consecutive bowl games. Georgia Tech reached the ACC Championship game two years ago. The ACC is still a pretty mediocre conference. In spite of all the negativity and coach-bashing last season, the Jackets were better than mediocre.

What did everybody think would happen when Johnson took over what was already a pretty steady ship? Did they believe that overnight he was going to turn Georgia Tech into Navy? That the Yellow Jackets talent would suddenly become doormat material for the first time since the Bill Lewis era?

I understand why there might be some doubts to just how good the Jackets could be. Johnson was bringing an unconventional option-oriented offense into a major-college conference for the first time. It had been successful everywhere he installed it, but service academies and Division I-AA programs aren't exactly BCS material (and the same argument might be made regarding the ACC). It might take some time to adjust to and get the proper kind of athletes to run it.

Johnson didn't come to the Flats to undertake a rebuilding project. It was more of a remodel. It remains a work in progress, but that doesn't mean it can't function and be lived in while the construction goes on.

His counterpart Saturday understands that.

"There have just been other offenses that have gained more attention and maybe become more fashionable, but I don't know if this system has ever failed at any time," Richt said. "It's going to succeed probably even more because no one else is doing it and defenses are scrambling to get a feel of how to defend it."

Johnson has used that edge to become the second most successful college coach in history through his first 12 seasons, compiling 115 victories at three schools. Georgia is well aware just how much his 116th might mean if it comes this weekend.

"While I've been here we haven't had to know what it feels like to lose to them," Bulldogs junior defensive end Rod Battle said. "I think that's our motivating factor. We don't ever want to lose to Tech."

Rivalry games create feelings that last a long, long time. And, as Johnson said, here we are and who knows.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or


- Georgia Tech at Georgia, noon (CBS-Ch. 12)

- South Carolina at Clemson, noon (ESPN2)


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