TAMPA -- There’s little doubt that the Georgia Bulldogs had more fun in the week leading up to this bowl game than they have the past couple years. The weather basically ensures that. This is not Memphis or Shreveport.
There’s also a sense, although never expressed out loud, that a win or loss in the Outback Bowl on Monday is not a referendum on the program. After all, No. 12 Michigan State is ranked higher than the Bulldogs, who have already ensured a 10-win season.
Still, the memory of last year lingers. And that’s what may keep the Bulldogs from mailing it in for this bowl.
In the long run, the 10-6 loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl may have served a positive purpose. It spurred some personnel changes, as head coach Mark Richt alluded earlier this week.
“It was certainly something that jump-started our offseason,” Richt said. “A bunch of guys I think believed that at that point, and I believed as the head coach, we’re gonna find out who’s all-in and who’s not. You know, you’re either in or you’re out. You decide. And I’m not gonna be mad if you’re out, just get out. You know. If you’re in, good, then you do it the way we say. I think the guys understood that’s the way it’s gotta be, and I think it helped us in that way more than anybody else.”
It’s doubtful that a similar housecleaning would await if Georgia were to lose Monday. The one position where that could happen is at tailback, thanks to the off-field issues of Isaiah Crowell, Ken Malcome and Carlton Thomas and the imminent arrival of recruit Keith Marshall.
This will be the final chance on the field for Crowell, Malcome and Thomas to leave a positive impression. Malcome will probably start, Richt said Sunday, but as many as four players could see action.
On defense, Georgia has a chance to finish the season showing it really is among the nation’s elite. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s unit also is hoping to continue the excellence into next year, with only one of Monday’s projected defensive starters being a senior. But several others are considering the jump to the NFL, notably All-American safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Cornelius Washington.
“Coach Grantham is always telling us that this is the last time the defense will be together,” Rambo said. “So we have to take advantage of it and just go out there and have fun.”
Michigan State (10-3) will be a test, and the Spartans have weapons. The Spartans have the nation’s fifth-ranked defense, receiver B.J. Cunningham is coming off a stellar season (72 catches for 1,240 yards and 12 touchdowns), quarterback Kirk Cousins is an NFL prospect, and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is a potential first-round pick.
But if the Bulldogs have last year’s bowl performance as motivation, the Spartans have a decade of it. Their most recent bowl victory was in 2001, in the Silicon Valley Bowl against Fresno State. The five-game bowl losing streak includes the 2009 Capital One Bowl, when Georgia won 24-12.
Last year Michigan State was destroyed 49-7 by another SEC team, Alabama, in the Capital One Bowl.
“It’s always about the last game you’ve played, you’re sort of always evaluated on that game,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “If you finish on a high note, things look great, if you finish on a low note . We were 11-1 last year and played Alabama, all I heard about was basically we didn’t get it done and this and that. It’s about how you finish.”
Richt remembers that well from last year, when the bowl loss meant the program’s first losing season in 15 years, as well as plenty of ill feelings.
He said Sunday that he felt there was positive momentum in the program, and that likely wouldn’t be derailed by a loss. But considering last year, the hope is to avoid finding out.
“I think our players understand why (Central Florida) won. And why we didn’t. And I think that really, it was probably more valuable in our offseason than maybe it is this week,” Richt said. “I don’t think we’re thinking about it right now. But we thought about it a lot when we started our offseason and how we didn’t want to go through that again.”
Tight end Orson Charles, another junior contemplating the jump to the pros, put it another way:
“This bowl will definitely set the tone for next year and the years after,” he said.