ATLANTA -- Just another game? Georgia Tech vs. Georgia? Well, that's the way Paul Johnson sees it.
In comments sure to stoke the rivalry even more, the second-year coach of the No. 7 Yellow Jackets said he looks at Saturday's contest against disappointing Georgia just like he would any other game on the schedule.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
"I know the game is important," Johnson said Tuesday. "But honestly, I get ready for this game the same way I do every other game. It is not the end-all, do-all for our football program to beat Georgia. I certainly want to win our share of games against them. They're in the state. I understand all that. But it's not going to define our year if we beat Georgia. I'm trying to build a football program here."
That sort of brush-off would have been laughable a mere two seasons ago. Georgia was the undisputed top dog, having beaten the Yellow Jackets seven years in a row.
But Johnson arrived on the scene in 2008, filled with bravado and proclaiming there was no reason for the Yellow Jackets to sulk in the shadow of their biggest rival. Just like that, the series took a totally different turn.
Between the hedges, Georgia Tech rallied to beat Georgia 45-42. Now, as the teams prepare to meet again in Atlanta, it's the Yellow Jackets (10-1) who are riding high. They've already clinched a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, while Georgia (6-5) is wrapping up the worst season of the Mark Richt era.
Johnson refuses to get caught up in all the rivalry hype, or at least that's the sort of image he wants to project. He figures that any sort of mental edge the Bulldogs once held in the series has been wiped clean. Never again does he want the Yellow Jackets to defer to the state's other major school, as if Georgia's undisputed popularity edge automatically translates into wins on the field.
"Maybe it was a big goal because Georgia Tech had not beaten Georgia for six or seven years," Johnson said. "But been there, done that. Don't be surprised by it. Act like you know it can happen."
That mindset surely helped the Yellow Jackets a year ago when they fell behind 28-12 at halftime. They just kept plugging away with their potent spread option offense, scoring 26 straight points in the third quarter and holding on at the end to hand the Bulldogs a devastating loss.
"I expected to beat 'em last year," Johnson said.
Over in Athens, the view is a little different, of course. The Bulldogs are now the underdog in their own state, and they don't like the feeling.
"They think the tide has changed and we're not going to win anytime soon," Georgia punter Drew Butler said. "They're looking forward to beating us for the next five or six years, and hopefully we can put an end to that."
Rest assured, the fans of both schools look at this game as more important than, say, Wake Forest or Arkansas.
"When you work with people every day, it makes life easier if your team wins. That way, you can be the guy cracking all the jokes," Johnson acknowledged. "I understand it's a big game. I'm not backing away from it being a big game. But it's not going to end our season if we win or lose the game. I'm not going to let one game define my football season. We've got to play 13 games.
"Now, if I was 0-12," he added with a slight grin, "I might let one game define it. But we've got other things to play for."
Indeed, the Yellow Jackets have what is arguably a more important game the following week when they face Clemson for the ACC title and a likely spot in the Orange Bowl. Still, there are undoubtedly some Georgia Tech fans who, if forced to make a choice, would prefer their team win this week rather than the next.
That's the sort of attitude Johnson wants to change, starting with his players.
"I'm sure they'll be fired up, but I don't know that they'll have a celebration in the streets if they win Saturday night. We've got other fish to fry," the coach said. "This game has no affect on what happens for the conference championship. Next week does. I'm not diminishing this game. But I'm not making it out to be the Super Bowl."
So, just another game? Butler scoffed at the notion.
"It's just a big rivalry game," the Georgia punter said, "and they want to
win as bad as we want to win."