For Georgia, this has been a very simple, enjoyable football season. The Bulldogs were picked fifth in the Southeastern Conference, went virtually unnoticed for eight weeks, then flashed to the No. 1 ranking in the polls when they finished with the nation's only 11-0 regular season record.
For Notre Dame, the last four months have been an endurance test. Since Coach Dan Devine announced in August that he was resigning at the end of the season, the media focus on the Irish has been on next year, instead of this year.
Thursday, these teams that have traveled such different roads all fall finally arrive at the same place, the 47th annual Sugar Bowl. And listening to their players talk, the differences in their motivation becomes apparent.
Georgia, in spite of its ranking and record, is a team facing its first and final test on the same afternoon. The Bulldogs know they are underdogs because they haven't played a top 10 team. They not only want to win the national championship, they want to prove their ranking is reasonable, not ridiculous.
Notre Dame has little to prove. The Irish were written off early beacuse of Devine's lame duck status and finished with a 9-1-1 record, which included victories over Purdue, Michigan, Miami, Navy and Alabama, all bowl teams.
Perhaps the attitude of the two quarterbacks sums up the differences between these two teams. Buck Belue, Georgia's starter, says simply, "This is the biggest game any of us has ever played in our entire lives."
Blair Kiel, the likely starter for the Irish, says, "We want to win the game for a lot of reasons. We want to get the new year off to a good start."
For Georgia, this is the final step in a dream season. For Notre Dame, this is merely a kind of stopover. There is no national championship to be won and 16 of the 22 starters will return next season. All of them are looking forward to a year without questions about the lame duck coach and the coach to be.
"It will be a relief," said linebacker Bob Crable, who played for Gerry Faust, Devine's successor; in high school. "At the beginning of the year we just wouldn't speculate on the future. When the coach was named, we knew we would be bombarded."
The first question Crable was asked yesterday was about Faust, prompting one Notre Dame oficial to say softly, "Every damn question is about the future. How are these kids supposed to concentrate on a football game?"
Notre Dame has dealt with the problem long enough now that the players say it doesn't really affect them. There isn't a rumor they haven't heard, a question they haven't answered.
The only Irish players who were admittedly uptight today were the quarterbacks, Kiel and Mike Courey. Devine still hasn't told them who will start and neither seemed pleased with the idea of playing mind games.
"I would almost rather know that Blair is starting than sit around wondering," said Courey, a senior who started the first three games. "It just leaves you walking around with an up-in-the-air feeling."
"It makes me edgy," said Kiel, the freshman who has started the last eight games. "It's tough mentally because you feel like you have to be sharp every day because there's that constant, ongoing fight."
Most Notre Dame people expect Kiel to start because it would be tougher for him to come off the bench at this point. Kiel has not passed well, completing just 38 percent, and Georgia's defense, very similar to Maryland's wide tackle six, is vulnerable to the pass.
Today, Devine seemed to be leaning to Kiel. He noted that the Irish have been criticized for being conservative offensively, for letting the defense carry them all season. Then he pointed out that while Kiel hasn't put the ball in the end zone that much, he has gotten the team out of bad field position often enough to let the defense go to work.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, Notre Dame will try to play ball control football, giving the ball to tailbacks Phil Carter and Jim Stone, who combined for 1,730 yards, as often as possible.
This may be the time for an Irish passing blitz. Split end Tony Hunter and tight end Dean Masztak, both hampered by injuries all season, are finally healthy. Both are rangy, 6-foot-4 targets who can get open.
The Georgia story centers around freshman tailback Herschel Walker, who did everything but scout upcoming opponents this season, with 1,606 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Today, in accepting both his own SEC coach of the year award and Walker's player of the year award, Dooley said, "I'd like to thank Herschel for making me such a good coach this year."