NEW ORLEANS —The over-arching Sugar Bowl storyline is of an up-and-coming Baylor football program looking to conquer a fading Goliath.
We’ve seen it before.
Georgia ran into a Texas team with something to prove last year in the Sugar Bowl, and the same markings are there for this year’s Jan. 1 battle in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“We’re a program that believes in competition,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who took the Bears from 1-11 in 2017, to 7-6 in 2018 and 11-2 this season.
“We’re a program that believes in being grateful for every opportunity that you have.”
The Georgia following does not seem grateful, expected to be out-drawn in New Orleans by a Big 12 school for the second straight year, tickets dropping to $6 apiece.
Beating the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (11-2) would prove something for the Bears. The Vegas line indicates some are betting that Baylor will do just that, the line for the game dropping from 8 1/2 to 5 1/2 over the past three weeks.
It’s the biggest shift in all of the bowl games.
It’s also another indicator the perception of Georgia football could be slipping from the ranks of the elite after its 37-10 blowout loss to LSU and offensive struggles.
It has become a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” kind of sports world.
Rhule, not Kirby Smart, is the 44-year-old head coach being most talked about in New Orleans.
Indeed, Smart and his players need to realize they have something to prove in the Sugar Bowl, too.
Chiefly, that they still belong among the elite of college football.
Yes, “elite” is a somewhat vague term, but Georgia football has not looked as good as its ranking this season. Five games were decided by one score or less, and the loss to South Carolina has left a visible scar.
The Bulldogs last truly impressive and convincing win was beating Florida 24-17 nearly two months ago. UGA held on for dear life in wins over Auburn (21-14) and Texas A&M (19-13).
The 52-7 win over cream puff Georgia Tech was marred by D’Andre Swift’s two fumbles and shoulder injury, and George Pickens senseless and costly loss of composure and third quarter ejection after serving a team suspension in the first half.
Smart will arrive in New Orleans on Friday afternoon needing to show he still has a firm grip on his program, to the extent he can maintain discipline and motivate the talented group of players on his roster.
The Bulldogs’ offense will have challenges with three starting offensive linemen missing and the two most reliable receivers injured.
But Smart has already said this will be a game of opportunity, and players not “engaged” will not be brought on the trip, a lesson learned in last year’s 28-21 loss to Texas.
“They’ll be challenges, absolutely, but there will also be opportunity,” Smart pointed out in Athens. “With opportunity, a lot of times guys get to answer the bell. We’re going to get an opportunity to find out some other guys that can play the position.
“A lot of guys that have been working really hard all year to develop that are going to get opportunities.”
Rhule and Baylor sees opportunity, too.
This would be the program’s first-ever 12 win season, and it would represent the biggest bowl win in program history since a 13-7 win over Tennessee in the 1957 Sugar Bowl.
The Bears players will be motivated to win their one-on-one matchups, too.
“If you want to go to the pros, play well against Georgia,” Rhule said. “For our younger players, if you want to build a great team next year, let’s end this on a positive note.”
Georgia football could use some positivity, too.
Perception can quickly overtake reality.