The Sugar Bowl theory carrying the most momentum is that the final score will confirm the deterioration of Florida State's place as a perennial national power, which dates to the moment offensive coordinator Mark Richt decided to become Georgia's coach.
Consecutive four-loss seasons and a slew of off-the-field transgressions have left Bobby Bowden, the Seminoles' 27-year coach, to deal with damage control for a month as he's prepared his team for tonight's meeting in the Superdome with Richt's favored Georgia squad.
First, Florida State removed quarterback Adrian McPherson from the team for his role in a check writing scam. Then, quarterback Chris Rix and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett were suspended for the Sugar Bowl. Rix overslept and missed a final exam. Dockett was disciplined for his involvement in an incident at an apparel store. And, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating possible gambling by McPherson.
"We know there are people looking at Florida State and saying, 'Where's the discipline? Where are the coaches?' " Seminole running back Nick Maddox said. "Those people tend to forget about or ignore the strong relationship Coach Bowden and his coaches have built with the players. Coach Bowden believes in what he coaches, and his philosophy is, 'Tough times don't last, tough people do.' "
Said Bowden, "Anyone who thinks they can get through life without adversity -- they've got another thing coming. We're not a Lone Ranger in this. We're not the first team to lose four games."
So Bowden, 73, heard questions Tuesday about clouds hovering over a program that won national championships in 1993 and '99, had a 14-year run of top-five finishes and a 17-5-1 record in bowl games during his era.
Meanwhile, Richt, 42, wore a steady, confident grin as he addressed questions about what a victory tonight would bring. He has quickly defined himself at Georgia as a tough, calm disciplinarian, and is 20-5 in two seasons with a chance to have this season's Bulldogs (12-1) cap their first Southeastern Conference championship in 20 years with a No. 2 national ranking.
Richt recently was awarded an eight-year contract extension that will pay him $1.5 million annually through the 2010 season, with a $3-million buyout clause.
"There's not a better school for me or my family," he said.
Michael Adams, Georgia's president, said, "Not only has Mark produced a winning football program in a short time, he also has set high standards for academic success and character development."
That linking of attributes is significant, Richt said. Indeed, he has shown little restraint in making his point if players veer from team rules, or incur "stupid penalties." Richt, for instance, substituted a freshman for senior George Foster after a personal foul call had deprived the team of a field goal. He treated receiver Reggie Brown and lineman Kareem Marshall in similar fashion.
"We have rules and it's for these guys' own good to abide by them," Richt said. "It's like handling a son. You love them, but there are times you need to teach them a lesson. That's the way we view this. It's not only a football lesson, it's a life lesson."
Richt was at Florida State when scandals marred the Seminole program. In 1993, five players were suspended for taking money and gifts from agents. In 1999, star receiver Peter Warrick was found guilty of a misdemeanor theft charge.
Richt's firm hand at Georgia has been interpreted as a "Not on my watch!" statement. He reacted strongly to that idea, though, saying he would be "very disappointed" if it were reported that he believed Bowden to be too lax on disciplinary issues. He praised Bowden's leadership.
"All I do is what I think is right and fair," Richt said. "I'm not trying to compare myself to anyone else."
Richt, a 1982 graduate of Miami who was quarterback Jim Kelly's backup, worked with Bowden from 1985 to 2000. Richt has said, "Everything I've had good in my life from coaching was given to me by [Bowden]."
Their professional relationship began one evening in 1985. Richt had his U-Haul packed, ready for a morning move from his Florida home to Baton Rouge, La., where he would serve as a graduate assistant coach at Louisiana State. Bowden called, telling him he had a better offer. The Seminoles were dropping their "freeze option" offense in favor of a classic drop-back quarterback system, and Bowden had an opening for a quarterback coach.
Among Richt's star pupils were Charlie Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1993; Casey Weldon, Heisman runner-up in 1991, and future NFL players Danny Kanell, Peter Tom Willis and Danny McManus. In 1994, Richt was promoted to offensive coordinator.
In 2000, another Heisman winner, Chris Weinke, received a Richt education.
"I'll never forget my second start," Weinke said. "I was a sophomore, playing North Carolina State. We were 27-point favorites, but I threw six interceptions and we lost. We met afterward in a room that had the pictures of all the Florida State quarterbacks. Coach Richt went right down the line, pointing at each of them, and said, 'See those guys? Each and every one of them had to deal with some form of adversity. You are not in this alone. We believe in you. We will help you.' "
Weinke threw 276 more passes without an interception.
"The best way to describe Coach Richt is that he's a perfectionist," Weinke said. "He's big on doing things the right way -- the proper drop, proper throwing motion. I don't think the Florida State offensive philosophy has changed, but there was just something unique about the way Coach Richt called plays. He'd always put something just a little different into the game plan, and it usually worked."
Maddox, the Seminoles' running back, said Richt's absence was being over-hyped.
"It takes awhile to adjust to a new coordinator, but this is not a significant change," Maddox said. "[Richt] wasn't a key figure. He was a part of the staff, not the entire cast or even the central figure. To say it's gotten better or worse because he left, who knows?"
Bowden says, good-naturedly, "He can probably give [Georgia] all my pregame talks, because he heard them all those years."
Still, there is Bowden's imprint on Georgia football. Richt's game-day drills are the same as those used at Tallahassee, and he has adopted early morning off-season drills to test players' physical and mental conditioning. Bulldog players have labeled Richt's rigorous Tuesday practices "Bloody Tuesday."
"There's not a lot more that you can say about what he's done here, beyond the fact we won the SEC championship for the first time in 20 years," receiver Terrence Edwards said. "I attribute it to Coach's hard work, and the fact his assistants are so much like him. They're not your buddy. They tell you something and they each have the power to back it up.
"The knowledge that [Richt] knows how to win is a big deal -- it's that mental edge everyone talks about."
Despite the criticism being leveled at his former boss, and some speculation that his own contract extension was a preemptive move to discourage thoughts of his eventual return to Florida State, Richt said he believed Bowden would remain on the job for several more years. Bowden's contract, worth $2 million annually, runs through the 2004 season.
Bowden said Tuesday that he's not going anywhere, extending the argument to contend that if the Seminoles beat Richt's Bulldogs with third-string quarterback Fabian Walker, "We're back, right where we're supposed to be, with another 10-win season."