SHREVEPORT, La. — For Texas A&M, it’s a stepping stone. After a down season that ended in November a year ago, the Aggies are making their return to the postseason with a chance to get their first bowl win since 2001 against what their fans still consider a powerhouse opponent. It’s a building block toward a brighter future.
For Georgia, it’s a step back. Just 18 months ago the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1. Now, they’re wrapping up a disappointing season with a 7-5 record in a lower-tier bowl game against an opponent that is thrilled to have finished at .500 this year. While the Aggies are looking to the future, Georgia remains in a state of limbo — down three defensive coaches after Mark Richt dismissed Willie Martinez and two other assistants earlier this month and hoping to win one final game for a group of seniors who have been heavily maligned by fans throughout this season.
On the surface, today’s Independence Bowl is still a matchup of two historically significant teams that showcase the contrasting styles of the high-flying Big 12 and the powerful SEC.
But more than anything, this game presents a contrast in perceptions. One team is playing for the future, while the other is simply riding out that final chapter of a story that seems to have reached its climax long ago.
Or so it would seem.
“We’ve prepared for and we want to win this game for our seniors,” Richt said. “We want to win this game for the 2009 season. It’s the finish of this year. A lot of people talk about it catapulting you into the future. We don’t really spend time talking about that. We talk about this year. We talk about finishing strong.”
Richt may be saying all the right things about Georgia’s interest in finishing the season on a winning note, but it’s impossible to ignore the obvious.
For Georgia, this represents its earliest bowl game since Richt’s first season in 2001 when the team played in the Music City Bowl.
It represents a vague limbo for the coaching staff, which is using a makeshift unit that includes two graduate assistants to handle the defense. No coordinator has been hired, although a number of false starts since Martinez was dismissed Dec. 2 have already been chronicled.
It represents a final chance for seniors like Joe Cox and Prince Miller and Bryan Evans to play in a Georgia uniform, but the rank among the leaders in ill will engendered from disappointed fans throughout the 2008 season, too.
It has been a roller-coaster season, and the downs have often weighed heavier than any of the celebrations, so the players realize that the outcome of today’s game may be determined by a single question: Is this the end of a bad year or the start of something new?
“It’s been an up-and-down season for the team and the defense, but we’re trying to prove to people at the beginning of the year that we’re trying to turn things around before next season starts,” linebacker Darryl Gamble said.
Texas A&M is hoping to prove the same thing, but the risks and rewards are far different. While a 7-5 campaign in 2009 led to shakeups on the Georgia coaching staff and boos from fans, a 6-6 record was cause for celebration for the Aggies.
“I feel like our team has handled adversity really well, we’ve come together, we’ve responded to challenges really well, and I feel like we have a bunch of winners on our team,” Aggies head coach Mike Sherman said.
While a date with a .500 opponent is seen as a step back for Georgia, Sherman admits a win over the Bulldogs would “be huge for us” at Texas A&M.
While Georgia bids farewell to its seniors, A&M sees a bright future with quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who threw 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions this year, and an offense that ranked fifth in the country in total yards.
Of course, the same might have been said about Georgia’s last matchup, too. The Bulldogs entered their regular-season finale against Georgia Tech a defeated team, fresh off a devastating loss to Kentucky. The Yellow Jackets were on the verge of the ACC championship game and ranked in the top 10.
The result was a win Georgia quarterback Joe Cox called the sweetest of the season for his team by a wide margin. The Bulldogs turned the tables and proved the doubters wrong.
And yet, the doubters remain, and Evans said his team still hears them. So while today’s Independence Bowl isn’t likely to mark a turning point in the program’s history or provide a stepping stone toward the future or prove to be a signature win over a marquee opponent, a victory would be no less meaningful.
That’s how this year has gone, after all, Evans said. It has always been an uphill climb, so one obstacle is simply one more challenge to meet.
“There’s a lot to prove,” Evans said. “We have no full-time coaches other than one on defense, and that gives people the thought that we have no chance. We just want to go out and show them we can do it with a coach or without a coach.”