ATHENS, Ga. - The trip to the Sugar Bowl may not have as much exotic appeal this year as it ordinarily would, but the players and staff for No. 8 Georgia say there is enough at stake to motivate the Bulldogs for their Jan. 2 game against West Virginia.
The Bulldogs started bowl practice Friday, minus their head coach, Mark Richt. He was in Dallas, Texas, where his daughter was scheduled to undergo surgery.
The Nokia Sugar Bowl was shifted to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta because of Hurricane Katrina's damage to the Superdome in New Orleans. Aside from the fact that Georgia will be playing its third straight game in Atlanta, many of the Bulldog players are from the metro Atlanta area.
"We have been pretty much everywhere in Atlanta there is to go except the aquarium," said tailback Thomas Brown of Tucker, an Atlanta suburb.
"I want to go to the aquarium," said quarterback D.J. Shockley of College Park, another metro suburb. "That is my biggest excitement. I'm an animal type of guy. I like to see exotic animals that I don't see every day."
Going to New Orleans would make the trip more fun, but the Bulldogs insist they will have no trouble getting prepared to play No. 11 West Virginia.
"It is a BCS game," said Shockley, "and a chance to get 11 wins and keep the legacy of this program going. The best way is for there not to be a letdown. You never want to end the year with a loss."
Line coach Neil Callaway agreed.
"No matter how good a season, if you lose your last game that always leaves a bad taste in your mouth," he said. "I'm sure LSU doesn't feel good about their season right now. If we don't beat West Virginia, we will probably walk around with a bad taste in our mouths for a long time."
Georgia defeated LSU 34-14 in the SEC Championship game in the Georgia Dome Dec. 3. A week earlier, Georgia beat rival Georgia Tech 14-7 at Grant Field.
Because of back-to-back losses to Florida and Auburn, Georgia was eliminated from the national championship quest. But there is still something to play for.
"No. 1, if you are a competitor, you always want to win," Callaway said. "We have raised our team to be competitors. We compete in practice every day and keep score. We teach our guys, if we are going to play, we want to win."
"You have to get fired up about playing a team like West Virginia," said wide receiver Brian McClendon of Atlanta. "They parallel us in so many ways. The experts didn't pick us to win the conference, and they didn't pick them to win. That tells you how self motivated they are. They are mentally tough."
McClendon might get an additional nudge from his father to win the game. Willie McClendon and Kevin McLee were running mates in the 1975 Georgia backfield. Kevin McLee Jr. is a linebacker for West Virginia.
All-America guard Max Jean-Gilles believes that the Bulldogs can attain top five status with a win.
"I want to go out with a bang," he said, "finishing in the top five with one of the best records in school history."
The seniors on this team enter the Sugar Bowl with a 44-8 record, more wins than the 1980-83 Bulldog seniors, who were 43-4-1. Of course, that included three straight Southeastern Conference championships and the 1980 national title.
This group of seniors has won two conference titles, and can finish with a 4-0 record in bowl games. The class of 2000 won four straight bowl games under former coach Jim Donnan.
Of course, those who are coming back hope that a bowl win can help kick off the momentum for next year.
"The focus is to get a win in the Sugar Bowl to lead on to the next season," said sophomore tailback Kregg Lumpkin of Lithonia, also a metro suburb. "We are having a lot of seniors leave. We are focusing on that now."
Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez believes that the Bulldogs will be ready to play.
"We will get right back into it pretty quick," he said. "The players have had enough time to rest and reflect. They recognize that we have worked hard to get where we are. We are playing a talented team, and we want to finish it. We are going to be measured by the last ball game we play. We have accomplished a lot, but we still have one more game."