SEC teams played in the Sugar Bowl for years, and that meant, in most cases, teams were playing as the champion of the conference.
On New Year’s Day 2003, Georgia was designated the home team, as the conference champion, against Florida State. This is a flashback to an early milestone Mark Richt victory over his former team.
Florida State was a dominant power in college football, and Bobby Bowden was the winningest coach in the NCAA. Joe Paterno passed him eventually, but Bowden was still a youthful and energized coach who could recruit and was winning at a clip of 10 games a year or more.
Richt had been Bowden’s offensive coordinator and obviously knew a lot about the Seminoles. Some of the players Richt had coached when he left Tallahassee to become the coach the Bulldogs before the 2001 season were still around. Richt felt uncomfortable, emotionally, going up against his old team, but he was focused on winning the game. Victory would be a plus in furthering the establishment of his program.
He kept it to himself, but he believed that his defense was better than Florida State’s, and he felt his quarterback situation was a positive. While it was not a platoon circumstance, Richt managed the game plan to include both quarterbacks, David Greene, the starter, and D.J. Shockley, the backup.
The positive reviews of this game began with the Bulldogs defense. It forced 3 turnovers, and one of the key plays in the game came when Bruce Thornton intercepted a Seminoles pass and returned it 71 yards for a touchdown. Right on the heels of that scoring break, Shockley completed a 37-yard scoring pass to Terrence Edwards. The Bulldogs led 17-7 at the half.
Florida State scored a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, but Chris Clemons stopped a 2-point conversion run ― a key play at a propitious moment. Billy Bennett added a pair of field goals as Georgia defeated the Seminoles 26-13.
There was obvious pride in the victory for Richt, who said it was a good feeling to defeat his former team because of the “great respect I have for the Florida State program.”
The slogan for the team had become “Finish the Drill.”
The Bulldogs felt they had accomplished their mission of winning that first bowl game under their new coach.
It was obvious Bowden was proud of Richt, saying, “He is such a nice guy, and I worried about his toughness. He proved to me this year that he can be tough when it really matters. He’ll have a fine record at Georgia.”