Originally created 12/31/98

Win over Virginia may be first step to top 10



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Don't get them wrong. The money's great. The cities, depending on their temperatures and extra-curricular activities, can be great. (So far, Jacksonville wins points for sunshine and loses them for swirling winds.) The exposure is unparalleled.

But the real fringe benefit of these 22 bowl games from Boise to El Paso is the practices. Sixteen post-season, to be exact.

They are the equivalent of spring practice, when coaches are allowed to tinker with rosters and non-starters the way you could during the get-to-know-you stage of preseason. Winter practices grant repetitions to rugrats.

There is a dual purpose for bowl games: Fine-tuning and focusing for starters, scrimmaging and slogging away for redshirts and reserves. Of the 44 teams participating this postseason, 27 played in bowls a year ago.

You think Clemson's Tommy Bowden or South Carolina's Lou Holtz wouldn't crave intimate time watching unknown players and their skills? Instead, both new coaches must wait until the allotted practice window to define their teams' personalities.

Not so with Georgia or Georgia Tech.

"During a normal week of practice, you don't give your backups the attention they need," Tech coach George O'Leary said Wednesday. "Here, they get to run our plays rather than the opponent's."

A year ago, the Jackets were basking in the South Florida sun, a 6-5 team preparing for a lackluster game against West Virginia. Today, they are 9-2 and ranked No. 12, hoping to creep into the top 10 with a Gator Bowl win over No. 17 Notre Dame.

"We're a better team because of what happened in Miami," quarterback Joe Hamilton, the most valuable player of that 35-30 win over the Mountaineers. "When you spend a week or a month together, you become closer. Our offense got in shape. After we won, we all knew that this year we had to build on that."

That's another benefit of a bowl. They're either springboards or quicksand, propping an off-season of good feeling with a win, or promoting enough questions and bitterness with a loss.

"They really can set the tone for the entire next season," O'Leary said. "You win a game like this against Notre Dame, and it catapults you into next season with everyone walking around feeling good. It vaults you into the top 10; it generates a positive note that you can draw back on."

Anyone who stayed up past midnight Tuesday to see Drew Brees lead Purdue to a stirring comeback win over Kansas State should realize that Brees immediately thrust himself into the 1999 Heisman picture and a youthful Boilermakers team into Big Ten contention.

Similar heaps of hype could be doled out to Quincy Carter or Joe Hamilton. A bowl win does that for you. These are breakthrough games for the now, and in a round-about way, breakthrough weeks for the future.

Should Georgia's Bulldogs wish to consider themselves warranted for top 10 consideration next season, as many in Bulldogs nation has already anointed, a win tonight over Virginia could be the first step.

Should Georgia Tech, with every skill player returning for 1999, desire itself worthy of laurels it claims to need, downing the Fighting Irish Friday could raise the eyebrows of poll voters everywhere.

"The taste you end with in your mouth is from the bowl game," Notre Dame's Bob Davie said. "There is a lot at stake.

"I've told our guys from the first practice on that you're going to hear me say that this is really the first game for next year. Me saying that has nothing at all to do with younger guys playing instead of older guys. It's opposite of that. The best thing we can do for next season is to win this football game."

Sports columnist Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.