JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Gator Bowl held its customary pregame luncheon Tuesday. Georgia’s players and staffers intermingled with their Nebraska counterparts. Nothing was done to separate them. No one saw the need.
This rematch of last year’s Capital One Bowl features very little animosity, despite much being similar about the two teams. There wasn’t much attempt by either side to stir up controversy in order to increase what has appeared to be lagging interest by the team’s fans. There hasn’t been much revenge talk from Nebraska. Georgia players have spoken of no anger emerging from last year.
No, this bowl game is more about finishing this year and heading into the next one right. These are two 8-4 teams that expected to be in better spots. The loser will leave with a disappointing season reinforced; the winner salvages a bit more heading into a more hopeful 2014.
“We want to make a statement that we’re a really good football team and the future’s bright,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “And end the season strong. There’s a lot going on in this game.”
For Georgia, there are two entities for whom the game is especially big: its quarterback and its defense.
Junior Hutson Mason will be making his second start, having replaced the injured Aaron Murray. Mason did well overall the first time against Georgia Tech, after a slow start, and a second good start would be another confidence boost for next season.
That’s especially true because Nebraska has a very good secondary. The Cornhuskers rank 22nd nationally against the pass this season, yielding just 205 yards per game.
Mason saw different coverages and schemes against Georgia Tech because of how that game played out. The line was stacked more early in the game, with the defense aiming to keep Todd Gurley out of the game. When Georgia Tech took a 20-0 lead, it started playing back more, and Georgia also went more up-tempo. Those both suited Mason’s talents, and he led the Bulldogs to the comeback win.
This time around, Mason isn’t really sure what to expect from the Cornhuskers.
“Both teams can testify to it. You prepare for a team for four weeks, and it’s much longer than any other team you really get to prepare for, maybe other than the first team you play. You wonder if they’re going to do the same stuff that you prepare for on film the whole time. That’s just something you have to be ready for,” Mason said. “You’ve gotta kind of take your instincts and the stuff you’ve learned off your four years here and play off your instincts.
“It’s just time to go play ball.”
Nebraska fared worse against the run this season, ranking 59th nationally. That figures to be a help to Gurley, who is probably as healthy as he has been all season since he strained his quad the second series of the opener.
Besides the secondary, there is one other Nebraska defensive player who has gained Georgia’s notice. Sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory has nine sacks in the past seven games, including three against Michigan.
“I think Gregory’s as close as you can get to an SEC defensive end,” Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “Not to single anybody out. But defenses in the SEC, especially defensive ends, have been highlighted throughout college football. He’s a guy who’s tall, he’s lanky. ... He’s a very strong kid.
Overall, Lynch compared Nebraska’s defensive talent to South Carolina and LSU, two teams that Georgia faced earlier in the season.
As for Georgia’s defense, this game is a chance to finish a fairly miserable season with a quality final performance. The Cornhuskers are also in flux at the quarterback position, with Taylor Martinez out. Senior Ron Kellogg is more of a pocket passer, while Tommy Armstrong Jr. can run a bit more.
But Georgia’s biggest concern is Ameer Abdullah, the junior tailback.
“The guy can really play football. Hard-nosed guy, really gets after it. Great vision, he can cut back,” Georgia senior end Garrison Smith said. “He’s a problem, because he’s such a talented back.”
Abdullah is the nation’s 10th-leading rusher, with 1,568 rushing yards this year. He is averages 6.17 yards per carry, just behind Gurley’s average of 6.27 yards per carry. One sub-plot to the game is Gurley being 97 yards away from a 1,000-yard season. Gurley missed three full games and the better part of two more because of injuries.
There has been a lot of talk from Richt and players about trying to finish high in the rankings as a springboard for next year. But as Richt pointed out, with the new four-team playoff it’s unclear how important the preseason rankings will be.
If nothing else, Richt can point to the feeling after last year’s game, when Georgia got a win, ending a two-game bowl losing streak. And he can point to the better feeling it left in the offseason.
“I think our guys like to play football,” Richt said. “I think they enjoy each other, that they want success for our seniors, and I think they want to get a little positive momentum going into 2014. So I think we’re in a good spot and just reading some of the Nebraska stuff I think they’re in a good spot, too.”