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December 31, 2007

Sugar Bowl: Hawaii vs. Georgia

Sugar Bowl: Who has the edge? | Video Preview | Bowl Central | Bowl schedule

SUGAR BOWL
Hawaii (12-0) vs. Georgia (10-2)
WHEN: 8:30 p.m., Tuesday
WHERE: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
TV: Fox (Thom Brennaman play-by-play, Charles Davis analyst)
THE LINE: Georgia by 7.5
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Georgia 6-1, Hawaii 3-0
RECORD VS. BCS TOP 25: Georgia 1-1, Hawaii 1-0
BCS RANK: Georgia 5th, Hawaii 10th
SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Georgia 11th, Hawaii 114th
COACHES: Georgia Mark Richt (4-2 in bowl games). Hawaii June Jones (4-1 in bowl games)
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The presence of the nation's lone undefeated team (Hawaii) and arguably the nation's hottest team (Georgia) make this the most appealing of any bowl other than the championship game.
KEY STATS: Georgia starts three freshmen on its offensive line, but the Bulldogs have allowed only 1.3 sacks per game. It will be interesting to see how that freshman-laden line fares against a Hawaii defense that ranks ninth in the nation in sacks and fifth in tackles for loss.
Steve Megargee
The doubts about Hawaii's legitimacy as a BCS contender started before the season and continued even as the Warriors ended the regular season as the nation's lone unbeaten team.

A Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia could silence the skeptics once and for all.

"Everyone has come up with an excuse as to why we are not a great football team," Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan said. "There shouldn't be any more excuses after this football game."

Is Hawaii truly great? Or are the Warriors merely a good team that benefited from playing one of the nation's easiest schedules?

The Sugar Bowl should answer that question.

Hawaii will be playing arguably the nation's hottest team in Georgia, which owns a six-game winning streak that includes four victories over bowl-bound teams (Florida, Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia Tech). By contrast, Hawaii has beaten only two teams with winning records (Boise State and Fresno State).

That soft schedule explains why Hawaii enters this game ranked only 10th in the BCS standings. Seven of the teams ahead of the Warriors including No. 5 Georgia - have lost at least twice.

Hawaii also has been criticized for its struggles on the mainland and its inability to stop the run.

The Warriors won at Louisiana Tech and San Jose State in overtime and needed a last-minute field goal to escape at Nevada. In three of its last four games, Hawaii has allowed an opposing running back to gain over 100 yards.

That could spell trouble Tuesday for Hawaii, which returns to the mainland to face a Georgia team with an outstanding twosome of Knowshon Moreno and Thomas Brown in the backfield. Moreno has rushed for 1,273 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, while Brown ranks sixth in school history with 2,573 all-purpose yards.

Moreno will play Tuesday despite spraining his left ankle in the Bulldogs' regular-season finale against Georgia Tech, though Brown will start ahead of him.

"We haven't seen a running back like (Moreno) all year,'' Hawaii linebacker Adam Leonard said.

Hawaii also is facing a team that's unlikely to overlook the Warriors. Georgia already learned its lesson.

Georgia was heavily favored in the Sugar Bowl against West Virginia two years ago, but the Bulldogs fell behind 28-0 and went on to lose that game 38-35. That experience should prevent Georgia from taking anything for granted this time.

"We went down 28-0 because they spread us out," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I think what happened was we had not seen that type of offense before, and we didn't fully understand how fast and talented those guys were."

The Bulldogs will try not to let history repeat itself Tuesday, even though it's extremely difficult to prepare for Hawaii's run-and-shoot system.

Hawaii leads the nation with 46.2 points per game and ranks second with 450.2 passing yards per game. Brennan has set an NCAA record with 131 career touchdowns while throwing to a talented receiving corps that features Davone Bess (101 catches, 1,213 yards), Ryan Grice-Mullen (100-1,335) and Jason Rivers (82-1,069).

The Warriors also possess the confidence that comes from continually overcoming adversity. They came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, Nevada and Washington. They erased a 21-point deficit against Washington and scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime against San Jose State.

After surviving all those close calls, they're unlikely to be intimidated by anything Georgia offers.

"It comes down to the confidence we have in each other and the confidence that Coach (June) Jones has in us," Grice-Mullen said. "If we are playing together, there are very few teams that can stop us."

The best way to stop this offense might be to keep it off the field.

Don't be surprised if Georgia tries to control the clock by handing the ball to Moreno and Brown early and often.

"I am sure they will look to do that, and they aren't smart if they don't try to do that," Jones said. "They have a Barry Sanders-type running back, and he's only 18 years old."

If the Warriors couldn't hold Nevada's Luke Lippincott or Washington's Louis Rankin below 100 yards, it's tough to imagine they could hold Moreno in check, assuming the freshman phenom is close to full strength after spraining his left ankle in the Bulldogs' regular-seaon finale against Georgia Tech. Moreno has the fourth-highest rushing total of any freshman in Southeastern Conference history.

Then again, Hawaii has spent the entire season proving doubters wrong. Why stop now?

"We get a lot of skeptics," Hawaii linebacker Solomon Elimimian said. "We got a lot of criticism of our defense all year, but our defense makes stops, and when we need them, we make those stops.

"(It's) just like Boise State and Oklahoma from last year. Nobody gave Boise a chance and (everyone) thought Oklahoma would overpower them. It didn't happen like that. The team that wanted it more and had the most heart came out on top."

Sugar Bowl: Steve Megargee breaks it down
Georgia run offense vs. Hawaii run defense
EDGE: Georgia This may represent the game's biggest mismatch. Although Hawaii ranks 38th in the nation in run defense, the Warriors have allowed a player to rush for at least 100 yards in three of their last four games. And they haven't faced any back as explosive as Knowshon Moreno, who reached the century mark in five consecutive games before being held to 45 yards against Georgia Tech in the Bulldogs' regular-season finale.
Georgia pass offense vs. Hawaii pass defense
EDGE: Georgia After a so-so freshman season, former five-star prospect Matthew Stafford has lived up to his considerable billing this year by throwing 18 touchdown passes with nine interceptions. Stafford will have to look out for a Hawaii defense that averages 3.3 sacks per game.
Hawaii run offense vs. Georgia run defense
EDGE: Georgia Hawaii ranks only 113th in the nation in rushing offense and throws the ball nearly 70 percent of the time. Kealoha Pilares is the Warriors' leading rusher with only 362 yards, though his average of 5.9 yards per attempt shows that Hawaii can run the ball when it chooses to do so.
Hawaii pass offense vs. Georgia pass defense
EDGE: Hawaii Colt Brennan has thrown for 4,174 yards and 38 touchdowns this year while setting several NCAA career passing records. Brennan throws to a collection of receivers that ranks among the nation's best. Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen have at least 100 catches each. Bess, Grice-Mullen and Jason Rivers all have more than 1,000 receiving yards this season.
Georgia special teams vs. Hawaii special teams
EDGE: Georgia Georgia's Brandon Coutu is 16 of 21 on field-goal attempts, with all of his misses from at least 47 yards. Georgia punter Brian Mimbs averages 42 yards per attempt. Hawaii's Daniel Kelly is 11 of 16 on field-goal attempts, while Tim Grasso averages 40.2 yards per punt.
Georgia coaching staff vs. Hawaii coaching staff
EDGE: Georgia Georgia's Mark Richt and Hawaii's June Jones have done their jobs as well as just about any coach in the country. Georgia's second-half surge coincided with Richt's decision to depart from his conservative philosophy by using motivational ploys that improved the Bulldogs' energy. Jones helped Hawaii overcome plenty of injuries on its way to an unbeaten season. Richt has more experience coaching BCS games, which gives him the advantage here.
Georgia will win if
The Bulldogs should win as long as they avoid turnovers and get enough production from Moreno that Brennan and Co. remain on the sideline for the majority of the game.
Hawaii will win if
The Warriors need Brennan to avoid interceptions and must get a big performance from their pass rush. If the Warriors can hang around until the fourth quarter, their experience at winning close games they've won five games by seven points or less - could pay off in the end.
X-factor
Moreno justifiably has earned the lion's share of the attention surrounding Georgia's late-season surge, but Thomas Brown could play an equally large role Tuesday. Brown returned late in the year after missing 3 games with a collarbone injury and rushed for 139 yards in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech. Richt has named Brown the Bulldogs' starting tailback for the Sugar Bowl ahead of Moreno, who sprained his left ankle in Georgia's regular-season finale against Georgia Tech.
The picks
Megargee's pick: Georgia 38-24
Other Rivals.com expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Georgia 35-20
Mike Huguenin, college sports editor: Georgia 41-28
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Georgia 35-21
Check out the rest of the Rivals.com Expert Picks.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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