Sweet Matchup

When West Virginia and Georgia meet in the Sugar Bowl, it could be a perfect fit in an atypical season - especially for a bowl game that has reinvented itself in just three months.

West Virginia - the team nobody picked and pundits disliked - and Georgia - the surprise SEC winners - are improbably perfect pieces. For the Bulldogs, it's a chance to play their final three games in a city with their largest fan base. For the Mountaineers, it's a chance at undeniable national recognition. For the Sugar, it's a chance to match two programs with a plethora of Bowden-based storylines and fan bases boardering on obsessive.

"We expect it to be very exciting," Sugar Bowl Executive Director Paul Hoolahan said. "Demand on tickets is very high from both teams. It's a situation where we are not trying to sell tickets, but to manage tickets. The last time we had (West Virginia) in game prior to BCS, they had a tremendous showing and brought 35-40,000 people."

West Virginia could do the same thing this season if fans can finagle what the bowl calls the "hottest ticket in town." Excitement around the program is as high as any time since 1993, its last undefeated season and the last time it won at least 10 games and went to the Sugar Bowl.

"This puts two very high caliber teams head to head," Hoolahan said. "We were hell-bent on making this Sugar Bowl as good as any of the ones in New Orleans."

It might have worked out better than that. Georgia gets what is effectively a home game and finishes the season playing its final three games - all away - in the same town. West Virginia gets a great location for its first BCS game in a close city seemingly designed for visitors.

"We had our work cut out," Hoolahan said. "We had 90 days to get things in order. It was a formidable challenge. I compared it to having the puzzle put together before Hurricane Katrina, then having it knocked off the table. Hopefully both teams will say it was every bit as good as they experienced in New Orleans. We created our own footprint. We got into town and had our own issues and did not go to the Peach Bowl. We realize we are a guest here and we did not want to offend anybody. We just wanted to go about our business."

Atlanta is such a large tourist area that it has as many hotels as even larger cities. Its airport is the busiest in the U.S. And it offers family entertainment in the form of galleries, theatres, concerts, hundreds of restaurants, NBA, NFL and NHL teams that are in-season and its newest gem, the largest aquarium in the world offering 55,000 aquatic animals from over 500 different species and five million gallons of water.

The Georgia Dome itself can be a tourist Mecca. It will host the Peach Bowl, a Falcons NFL game and the Sugar Bowl on three consecutive days.

"It's rewarding for our guys," WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "It lets you reward them legally. I am sure Georgia will get a little bit of a home field advantage, but for us to be a part of that environment that is sold out, it's exciting. It gets our guys juiced up."

No. 11 West Virginia (10-1) has not played in a major bowl since its first season in the Big East. It is 0-7 all-time in January games and has lost its previous two Sugar Bowl appearances. It is, however, 3-1 in Atlanta, all in the Peach Bowl, and will make its school-record third straight appearance in a New Year's Day (or later) bowl. All have come with at least a share of the Big East title.

No. 7 Georgia (10-2) won the Sugar Bowl in 2002. The Bulldogs' only losses this year came versus red-hot Auburn (31-30) and at Florida when quarterback D.J. Shockley was injured. It beat LSU 34-14 in the SEC championship.

"The teams and fans from these two magnificent institutions will help produce a Sugar Bowl that will be historic in so many ways," Sugar Bowl President Mark C. Romig said. "This year has been an extremely challenging one for all of us involved. While we look forward to our return to New Orleans - the country's most interesting city - we are fortunate to be hosted by the great people in Atlanta. We will forever be grateful for the hospitality shown to us over the past several weeks and we look forward to offering a healthy portion of the same to the Georgia Bulldogs and the West Virginia Mountaineers."

Said Hoolahan: "We're pleased to invite both these great institutions. We love to bring coach Mark Richt and his fabulous Bulldogs' team to another game. It is a class act and a great program. We have great respect for what your kids are all about.

"This will be a game of champions, one from the SEC and another from the Big East. Both programs played at the highest level throughout the season, and the players and coaches from each school are to be congratulated for what they accomplished. We look forward to hosting the staff, players, alumni and fans from both universities."


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