NEW ORLEANS - Even in the wackiest of seasons, no one could have seen this Sugar Bowl coming.
Georgia appeared down and out at the midway point, licking its wounds after a listless 21-point defeat at Tennessee. Coach Mark Richt wouldn't even talk about goals such as conference championships or major bowls, figuring both were out of reach with the Bulldogs' second defeat.
Not so fast. Georgia (10-2) hasn't lost since and might be playing as well as any team in the country.
Five time zones west of Athens, Hawaii put together perhaps the most neglected perfect season in college football history. The Warriors (12-0) play most of their games after the rest of the country goes to bed; when everyone finally woke up, they found an unlikely interloper as part of the Bowl Championship Series.
Tonight, these two disparate teams will meet for the first time, a traditional Southeastern Conference powerhouse taking on an up-and-coming program from paradise.
It just might be the most intriguing game on the postseason schedule, certainly a worthy warm-up to the BCS title game six days later on the same Superdome field.
"They're undefeated, so I know they're approaching this as a championship game," Georgia defensive end Marcus Howard said. "We were one of the hottest teams toward the end of the year and felt like we should have been in the BCS."
Even without a national title on the line, it's a fascinating story line:
•Can the Warriors, who went undefeated against an unimpressive schedule that included teams such as Northern Colorado, Charleston Southern and Idaho, cope with an opponent that knocked off defending national champion Florida and three other bowl-bound teams during its six-game winning streak?
•How will Georgia's defense fare against Heisman Trophy finalist Colt Brennan and the rest of Hawaii's run-and-shoot offense, which is unlike anything the Bulldogs have faced all season?
•Will the Bulldogs take offense when Hawaii does its traditional Polynesian war dance before the game? Can the Warriors counter the emotional boost Georgia expects to get from donning its black jerseys?
"I really don't have a good feel for how it's going to go," Richt said. "We haven't played them before. We haven't played anybody like them. Their style is very different from anyone we've played."
Hawaii can take hope from last year's Fiesta Bowl, when another unbeaten team from the Western Athletic Conference knocked off a big-time school from one of the elite conferences. Boise State's thrilling overtime win against Oklahoma was a victory for all the little guys.
The Warriors are eager to show it wasn't a fluke.
"No one gave Boise a chance. They thought Oklahoma would overpower them," Hawaii linebacker Solomon Elimimian said. "It didn't happen like that. The team that wanted it more and had the most heart came out on top."