And for the 32nd time — and third meeting in a row — one team is ranked and the other isn’t. No. 8 Georgia (8-2) has maintained its lofty perch in the rankings all season, while the Yellow Jackets (6-4) have barely sniffed the polls.
Since the Associated Press poll began in 1936, the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets have entered the game both ranked just seven times. In a state lauded for its high school football quality, those statistics seem out of place.
"There’s enough quality (high school) players," Tech head coach Chan Gailey said. "This state supports a lot of Top 25 teams."
Just rarely, at the same time, the state’s two flagship universities.
"It could easily happen here," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said.
He can point to relatively recent history. The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets were both in the top 25 at the time of their game from 1998 to 2001. Both teams were also ranked in 1942, 1946 and 1966.
"Look at the history of all programs throughout the country. Programs are up and down," Georgia Tech director of athletics Dave Braine said.
"Nobody remains good forever."
Three years can feel like forever. That’s how long it’s been since the Yellow Jackets have beaten their hated rivals and, coincidentally, since Tech was ranked entering any game.
The turning point
In December of 2001, it was Georgia fans that were wondering if their beloved Bulldogs could snap their terrible three-game skid against Tech. The streak was the longest since 1961-63, two generations ago. Georgia fans were not accustomed to losing to Tech, and the three-game skid helped ease coach Jim Donnan out the door.
The Bulldogs, ranked No. 19 and under the direction of first-year head coach Mark Richt, topped the 21st-ranked Yellow Jackets 31-17 in Atlanta.
Few knew the fortunes of each program would veer so dramatically from that point.
Since the victory, Georgia has been ranked every week, including 40 times in the top 10. The Bulldogs have won a Southeastern Conference title, a Sugar Bowl and been in national title contention every year, accumulating a 32-7 mark.
The Yellow Jackets fell from the rankings after that loss in 2001 and returned at No. 24 after beating Stanford in the Seattle Bowl a month later. Tech has not been back in the rankings since.
Weeks after the loss, head coach George O’Leary, who’d gone 3-4 against the Bulldogs and given Tech a consistent winner, resigned to become, however briefly, the head coach at Notre Dame. Chan Gailey replaced O’Leary, and the Yellow Jackets have maintained their bowl streak with consecutive 7-6 seasons and this year’s 6-4 mark.
Including the 2001 game, Georgia has won the last three games by a combined 116-41.
A little emphasis
If the 2001 game marked a turning point, then 2002 provided an exclamation point. Gailey, an Americus native, received a rude re-introduction to the rivalry in his first season as head coach. The Bulldogs toyed with Tech, dismantling the visitors 51-7. It was the Yellow Jackets’ worst loss in series history.
"It was a wake-up call for a lot of people," Tech middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson said. "It stuck with us for a long time. It was a real big deal."
In the immediate aftermath, fans called for Gailey and Braine to be fired. Cooler heads prevailed, but in a state that talks football year-round, those losses add a lot of heartache. Wins, conversely, bring a year’s worth of bragging rights.
"It’s not the week of the game; it’s the other 358 days of the year," Gailey said. "Win or lose, you live with it."
Under Richt, the Georgia juggernaut shows little signs of slowing. Today will be the final games for the program’s most recognizable pieces — quarterback David Greene and defensive end David Pollack — but standout juniors Thomas Jones, Max Jean-Gilies and Odell Thurman have pledged to return. And the Bulldogs continue to haul in top-rated recruiting classes, making it likely they’ll be somewhere in the rankings next season.
In Atlanta, they’ve taken notice.
"You can’t get the respect that you want in your state if you’re not the best team in your state. We’re always going to be measured against them. And we don’t mind that," Wilkinson said. "It’s incentive for us to step our game up."
Here’s some more: "I will be very disappointed next year if both teams are not ranked," said Braine, fully aware that the Yellow Jackets return 10 starters on defense and most of their offensive skill position players.
Both in the polls
Football powerhouse states like Florida, Texas and California routinely place more than one college team in the polls. But Georgia is more comparable to states like Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma, places where there are two Division I-A schools and fertile recruiting in and around the state.
Virginia and Virginia Tech have managed to grow in each other’s shadows. They meet today with both teams ranked in the top 25 for the 10th time since 1989.
"It’s been the case for some time," Virginia head coach Al Groh said.
"High school football has got great interest in the state and there’s great talent in the state. I anticipate football in the state of Virginia should stay at a high level for a long period of time."
Auburn and Alabama have both been ranked 16 times when they met. Like Georgia and Tech, South Carolina and Clemson carry on their rivalry from different conferences. They’ve met just four times when both were ranked.
Being in separate conferences, Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway said, should not hamper either teams.
"I think it’s very doable and practical for both (teams) to be in the Top 25," said Callaway, who played at Alabama and coached at his alma mater and Auburn. "You’re not only competing with other teams in your league, but you’re competing with each other.
"The better one gets, the better the other one wants to get. It raises the bar for the other."
Staff writer Josh Kendall contributed to this report. Contact Murphy by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Times when both teams were ranked:
1942: Tech 2, Georgia 5, Georgia won 34-0
1946: Tech 7, Georgia 3, Georgia won 35-7
1966: Tech 5, Georgia 7, Georgia won 23-14
1998: Tech 17, Georgia 12, Tech won 21-19
1999: Tech 20, Georgia 16: Tech won 51-48 (OT)
2000: Tech 18, Georgia 19: Tech won 27-15
2001: Tech 21, Georgia 19: Georgia won 31-17
Georgia Tech (6-4, 4-4 ACC) at No. 8 Georgia (8-2, 6-2 SEC)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. (TV: CBS. Radio: Tech — 100.1 FM in Macon; 1350 AM in Warner Robins; 1450 AM in Milledgeville; 1590 AM in Thomaston; 97.7 FM in Vidalia and Vienna; 790-AM in Atlanta; UGA — 940 AM in Macon; 102.3 FM/1450 AM in Milledgeville; 610 AM and 103.9 FM in Hawkinsville; 1330 AM/107.5 FM in Dublin; 1590 AM/101.1 FM in Thomaston; 970 AM/106.1 FM in Vidalia;1340 AM, 960 AM and 106.1 FM in Athens).
Stadium: Sanford Stadium (92,746), Athens
Tickets: Sold out
Kickoff weather: Low 50s, 60 percent chance of rain
Series: Georgia leads 55-36-5
Last meeting: Georgia won 34-17 in 2003
Odds: Georgia by 15.5
Injuries: Georgia — Probable: TE Martrez Milner (back), WR A.J. Bryant (foot); Questionable: RB Michael Cooper (back), WR T.J. Gartrell (shoulder); Out: DL Marquis Elmore (concussion); LB Jamario Smith (back). Georgia Tech — Questionable: RB P. J. Daniels (knee), RB Chris Woods (hamstring); Probable: DL Omar Billy (hand) ; Out: OL Brad Brezina (head), DB Dennis Davis (shoulder).
Up next: Bowl games, to be determined.