Teacher/Pupil square off today

NEW ORLEANS — If only for show, the battle for Sugar Bowl bragging rights between the teacher and star pupil began Tuesday.

In their final press conference before tonight's 8:40 p.m. kickoff in the Superdome, the teacher — Florida State coach Bobby Bowden — and the star pupil — Georgia coach Mark Richt — were asked to pose for photographers with the Sugar Bowl trophy.  

Muttered Richt, belatedly putting one hand on the trophy: "I forgot to grab it.''  

"I was trying to grab it away from you,'' said a grinning Bowden.  

From Richt, also smiling: "You've got too many as it is.''  

Said Bowden: "Yeah, but half of them were with you.''  

The press conference was only the second opportunity for Bowden, the 73-year-old coaching legend and Richt, his former long-time assistant, to share any time together during the busy bowl-week agenda. Last week the two chatted, but only for a few seconds, at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast.  

The Richt vs. Bowden storyline is perhaps the most compelling of the game, but tonight's game is about much more than a reunion.  Georgia (12-1), ranked fourth in the nation, will be playing for the first 13-win season in school history and further validation of the return of the Bulldogs as a national power.  

Bowden's Seminoles have suffered two straight four-loss seasons since Richt left as offensive coordinator to take the head job at Georgia. Richt was in Tallahassee for all but one of 15 straight seasons with 10 or more wins, including two national championships and four Sugar Bowl victories.  

Florida State (9-4) has endured a season of turmoil, but an upset win over Georgia would send the message that the No. 16 Seminoles are a team on the rise in 2003.  

Last month, quarterback Chris Rix was declared ineligible for the bowl by Florida State for missing two final exams and top defensive lineman Darnell Dockett was suspended for an incident at a Tallahassee mall.  Earlier in the year, backup quarterback Adrian McPherson was kicked off the team for allegedly stealing a check.  

Those incidents have helped make the Seminoles a big underdog tonight, a factor that some Florida State players find insulting.  

Said defensive tackle Travis Johnson: "You see how people give us no shot. They say ‘Chris Rix is gone, they have no quarterback. Darnell Dockett is gone, they have no defensive line. Adrian McPherson is gone, they have no backup quarterback.''  Added Johnson, his voice rising: "It's crazy. What are we? Are we a pee-wee football team? Are we that bad that we're going to get blown out by 16 points? We get to show what kind of people we are deep inside.''  

Johnson's indignation is an example of the response Richt expects from the Seminoles, who have played well against top teams. The Seminoles were within a missed field goal of beating Miami and they took a 31-14 win over Florida, the one team to beat Georgia.  

Richt worries that his players might pay too much attention to the reports of the Seminoles' problems. He said he planned to tell his team later Tuesday that eight of the first 14 bowl games were won by underdog teams.  

For Georgia players, the issue of overconfidence has become old news.  

In the Bulldogs' last two games, there was talk they might not take Georgia Tech seriously, and Georgia's response was a 51-7 rout.  There was concern Georgia players not give Arkansas enough respect in the Southeastern Conference championship game, and the Bulldogs again displayed strong focus in delivering a quick knockout punch in a 31-3 win.  

Senior offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb says Georgia, in winning the program's first SEC championship since 1982, has come too far to relax now that it finally is back in the Sugar Bowl.  

"Whoever thinks the game is not one of the biggest in Georgia history over the last 20 years is sorely mistaken,'' Stinchcomb said this week.  "This team is very capable of beating Georgia, and we're well aware of that. We're preparing like we're playing for the national championship.''  Added Stinchcomb: "It seems like I've answered the same questions many weeks: Are you going to look past them? Are you going to have a problem getting up? That's not what this team is about.''  

Bowden, who has heard whispers that the dip to two four-loss seasons is a sign he should retire, wants to use the bowl game to make a statement for the program.  

"I'll be honest with you,'' Bowden said Tuesday. "If we were to win the game, I'd feel like we're back.''  

Richt already has Georgia back in a position of national prominence, but Tuesday he left one task unfinished.  If given another opportunity after tonight's game, Richt surely will grab the Sugar Bowl trophy with both hands.

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