Different Paths to Tampa

TAMPA, Fla. -- Georgia's and Wisconsin's football seasons hardly could have gone differently and ended up in the same place.

The Bulldogs (9-2) opened the season as the No. 3 team in the nation and a chic pick to win the national championship. All that optimism basically ended in the fifth week of the season with a flop of a loss to Tennessee.

The Badgers (9-2) started the year ranked No. 21 and not considered even a fringe player in the national title race, but they rolled up nine straight wins and went from No. 20 to No. 6 in a three-week span. By Nov. 7, Wisconsin was No. 4 in the country and one of four legitimate championship contenders.

Wisconsin, it turned out, was only saving its flop until the 10th week of the season. The Badgers lost 49-14 that day to Michigan State and followed it up with a 30-7 loss to Iowa.

"We were disappointed," Badgers quarterback John Stocco said. "I think any team would be. We had the opportunity to play for a championship, and that's why you play the game. It didn't work out, but we're definitely not disappointed to be in this bowl game. This is a great opportunity for us, but I think everyone was a little disappointed about the way we finished our season."

Stocco insists that disappointment is gone now that No. 16 Wisconsin is here preparing for Saturday's Outback Bowl. And No. 8 Georgia's players and coaches say the same thing. Still, no one here has forgotten that the national championship is being decided another couple hours down I-75 in Miami.

"Obviously," Georgia quarterback David Greene said, "everybody wishes they were in the Orange Bowl, but this is a great bowl."

The Bulldogs have insisted all week that they won't let their disappointment affect them once they get inside Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Bucanneers.

"If we weren't playing against a team we respect then maybe," senior wide receiver Reggie Brown said.

The team's work ethic and intensity have been good since it began practice on Dec. 26, Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said.

"I don't know how they feel about being at the Outback Bowl," he said, "but I like their focus. I like their concentration."

Wisconsin senior free safety Jim Leonhard probably put it best when he said: "We've all got a bad taste in our mouth with how the season ended. We're excited to be going down to the Alamo Bowl and having a good time and getting a win."

The Badgers played in the Alamo Bowl in 2002.

Both head coaches are trying to motivate their teams with the 10-win milestone. The Badgers have only had three 10-win seasons in school history.

"That tells you how difficult it really is to get to 10," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "Ten wins is a big deal."

Georgia is shooting for its third straight season and 15th overall with at least 10 wins.

"The difference between eight (wins) and nine doesn't seem as big," Coach Mark Richt said. "You get into double digits, and it just looks better. It feels better. I think it's been a very good year. If you win, it's a great year."

However, 10 wins won't make anyone wearing red and black forget the fact that this season was supposed to end further south.

"It won't erase it," Brown said. "We didn't get there and that's always going to be in the back of our head, but at least it's good that we're disappointed in 10 wins."

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