CHARLOTTE - This is not your normal bowl game, as a conversation with Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason showed on Monday.
Mason was asked to sum up Georgia's season in one word. He thought for awhile, then offered a somewhat downbeat answer.
“For me personally I think it’s disappointing, because we had two games that we shoulda and coulda easily won," he said. "Just my opinion, there’s one game where we showed up and just flat-out got beat, and that was down there in Jacksonville. But when you look back at the (other) two losses that we had it’s frustrating, because you saw the opportunities that we had where we could have won the game. So you look back at the season and think, Man, we could have been very, very special.”
It leaves a more sour taste, Mason added, knowing they were so close in two games (South Carolina and Georgia Tech), rather than being blown off the field.
But as he talked more, Mason reconsidered his original label on the season.
“I don’t know if disappointing is the right word, because we can still do something pretty special," he said. "If you think about it, if we win this game, there’s a good chance we can finish in the top 10. Anytime you get the chance to finish in the top 10, no matter how your season went that’s pretty special.”
The motivational factor
Bowl games, it's said often because it's usually true, are decided by the team that wants to be there the most. Georgia's loss to UCF in the 2010 Liberty Bowl is but one example. So I came here to Charlotte thinking that Louisville had the advantage; Georgia went from possibly playing in the national playoff to ... well, the Belk Bowl.
It didn't help that Georgia lost its offensive coordinator, and Louisville would certainly love to knock off an SEC team.
A few days at Georgia's practices here at Charlotte did show that the Bulldogs had spirit to them this week. The coaches, trying to pack in as much as they could in a limited time frame, went full-pads as much as possible.
Several Georgia players I spoke to pointed to the loss to Georgia Tech as a reason they'd be motivated. After all, this is the first time any of these players have headed into bowl season off a loss to their in-state rival.
"With us losing that last game, and everything that's going on, everybody's motivated," linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. "Everybody's together, and has been all year."
"Winning the game is pretty much all the motivation we need," cornerback Damian Swann said. "We lose a tough one at home against Tech. That normally doesn't happen. So we've got to find a way to get our edge and leave this play with a victory."
I'd still tend to give Louisville the advantage on the motivational side, for the reasons stated above. Of course it's hard to say for sure, and we'll find out tonight.
Keys to the game
When it comes to predicting this game, there's been a lot more attention on personalities and implications than Xs and Os. So here are some quick thoughts to wrap this up:
- Isaiah McKenzie's absence is potentially a big one for Georgia. In all due respect to Reggie Davis and Damian Swann, they haven't shown the explosive ability on returns that McKenzie has. Obviously Georgia hasn't always needed the home run from McKenzie in each of his wins - he has four this season - but it also wouldn't hurt.
- Louisville has the nation's second-best rush defense, and Georgia has the third-best pass defense. I think both rankings are deceptive. Louisville hasn't played many great running teams (they missed Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, although they did do well against Boston College, ranked 14th nationally in rushing offense.) Georgia's passing defense has been very hit-and-miss, still heavily dependent on the pass rush, and that could take a hit with Leonard Floyd's absence. (Although Lorenzo Carter is pretty good too.)
- Louisville receiver Davonte Parker is among the nation's best, the stats just don't show it because he missed six games. It'll be interesting to see whether Jeremy Pruitt puts his best cornerback, Swann, on Parker, or keeps Swann at the star and lets Aaron Davis or even Malkom Parrish handle him. The best guess if Pruitt moves the corners around a lot.
- Turnovers are always key, but this season shows they will be especially critical for both teams. Georgia's plus-15 margin is among the nation's best, and we saw in the Georgia Tech game what happens when the Bulldogs suddenly start turning it over. (Like at the goal-line, twice.) Louisville has caused a lot of turnovers, led by safety Gerod Holliman (14 interceptions this season). But the Cardinals have also coughed it up a lot, a total of 23 times. The quarterbacks have only accounted for seven interceptions.
- Something else to watch: Louisville has 25 interceptions as a team, so it's not just Holliman. The Cardinals like to force the other team's quarterback's into bad decision via the pass rush. (Louisville has 39 sacks this season, Aggressiveness is Todd Grantham's M.O., as we know. But Georgia should be in good position to cancel this out, thanks to Hutson Mason's accuracy (four interceptions all season) and the offensive line's great protection (only 15 sacks allowed.)
- So for those reasons, if I had to pick a key to the game I'd say it was Georgia's offense. Hold on to the ball, first off. And run the ball well, which takes away Louisville's perceived strength - both the run defense and the ability to rush the quarterback.
It's cold outside Finally, the weather. It's cold. It's rainy. In other words, kind of similar to the atmosphere Georgia had last year at the Gator Bowl.
I'm not sure if that particularly favors either team. It does serve as another reminder that this was not the preferred bowl trip. Look, the Belk Bowl people have been great and downtown Charlotte has been pretty cool. (The barbecue here is very good.)
But when it comes to the "bowl experience," I'll continue to be the grumpy guy who feels a team that went 9-3 (still a good season, by the way) should end up somewhere, you know, warm. But oh well.