CLEMSON, S.C. - Georgia and Clemson have said all the right things about today's renewal of their rivalry.
Players have talked about how much the game means to them. Coaches have talked about how much winning the game would help recruiting. Players and coaches have lamented that today's high-noon showdown at Death Valley (noon, ABC-Ch. 6) could be the last in a long time between the two rivals.
But when you get past all that pomp and circumstance and consider how much both programs endured during the off-season, the 63rd game is most important for one reason:
It's a game.
For Clemson, no more talk of the humiliating 55-15 shellacking in the Tangerine Bowl against Texas Tech. For No. 11 Georgia, no more rehashing of Ringgate, the Michael Adams-Vince Dooley spat or other off-the-field problems.
For the Tigers and Bulldogs, simply putting on the pads, strapping up the helmet and playing will be a relief in and of itself.
"We got embarrassed in our last game," Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said of the team's last game. "We want to get that bad taste out of our mouths. We want to show everybody that wasn't the real Clemson that played in the bowl game. We're for real this year."
Georgia doesn't have bad bowl memories to worry about. The Bulldogs beat Florida State in the Sugar Bowl to cap a 13-1 season that included their first Southeastern Conference title in 20 years.
It's what has happened since then that has dogged the program. The Bulldogs' depth chart was ravaged by suspensions before fall camp began, and injuries have made things much worse since the team took the field earlier this month.
There's a good chance Georgia will be missing 17 players today because of the attrition. Eight players - including defensive backs Tim Jennings and DeMario Minter, and tailback Tyson Browning - are suspended at least one game for violating team rules.
"I can't tell you it hasn't been trying at times," said Richt, who recently lost starting defensive end Will Thompson to a season-ending ankle injury. "It's not something you want to deal with in the off-season. But you have to deal with it. That's part of being in charge."
Earlier this week, an interesting question was posed to Bowden: Which is worse, Georgia's laundry list of problems after a banner year, or an off-season of hot-seat talk after a mediocre 7-6 season?
Bowden didn't hesitate.
"I'd trade him," he said. "It's a lot easier to handle those other ones when you have 13 wins than when it is seven. ... It's a nice feeling to have success like that."
For the Bulldogs and Tigers, just taking the field today will feel like a success.
"That's one of the reasons we're so excited to finally play in a game," Clemson linebacker John Leake said. "So we can get that pain out of our heads from the Tangerine Bowl."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org