Talkin' Football previews the Gator Bowl between Georgia and Nebraska
For the past two weeks, the Georgia Bulldogs have been preparing for their postseason matchup with Nebraska (8-4). Set for a noon kickoff on Wednesday in the heart of scenic Jacksonville, Fla., this year's Gator Bowl perhaps lacks the appeal of other games because, well, we saw these two teams play each other last year.
Fans may not be thrilled by the prospect of a rematch, but that certainly doesn't leave this game devoid of interest. A lot can change in one season, as was the case for a UGA team just five yards away from a BCS title game appearance last December. This year, the Bulldogs stumbled to an 8-4 record (5-3 in the SEC) behind poor pass defense and a slew of injuries on offense.
Similarly for Nebraska, injuries played a part in keeping the Huskers out of contention for a Big Ten title as did a propensity for the team to crumble in the big games under fiery head coach Bo Pelini. The Gator Bowl is not exactly where either team wanted to end up, but here we are.
A few things to keep an eye on heading into this game:
Guess Who? QB edition
The opening day quarterbacks for both Georgia and Nebraska are out due to injury. Prolific passer Aaron Murray tore his ACL while playing Kentucky. Taylor Martinez is being held out because of a lingering foot ailment. In their places, the Bulldogs will start redshirt junior Hutson Mason while the Huskers appear poised to roll with redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong.
Mason made his first career start in UGA's double-overtime win over Georgia Tech and, despite a slow start, finished a solid 22-for-36 passing for 299 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He's all but guaranteed to be Georgia's signal-caller in 2014, so his performance will present a strong point of interest heading into the offseason. As for Armstrong, there have been times when he has played like a freshman, but that doesn't mean he can't move the ball against a UGA secondary that has struggled all season.
It wouldn't be a Georgia football game without...
Suspensions. Earlier this month, the Bulldogs announced that safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback Sheldon Dawson would miss the bowl game for violating team rules, leaving the team's secondary somewhat thin. Damian Swann and Shaq Wiggins still project as the starting cornerbacks and Corey Moore should remain at strong safety, but the team could be forced to rely upon either true freshman Brendan Langley or seldom-used sophomore Devin Bowman to play the "star" linebacker position when Todd Grantham's defense works out of its 2-4-5 package.
Perhaps more importantly, Harvey-Clemons has been one of the team's better run defenders. His loss will hurt as UGA tries to limit Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, a bruising junior running back who has amassed 1,568 yards rushing on 254 carries this season.
Any way you look at it, Georgia's defensive backfield will find itself in the spotlight once again on Wednesday.
“Immaturity played a big factor this year. Lack of experience. Communication, just getting to know each other better on the field," Moore said. “Everyone back there this year, it was their first time back there. Next year I think we’re going to be a pretty great defensive back corps.”
That may sound like a tasty Italian dish, but it is also an allusion to the fact that the Cornhusker offense has been pretty careless with the football. In fact, Nebraska turned the ball over a conference-leading 28 times this season, with 16 fumbles and 12 interceptions. Georgia's defense, however, was among the worst in the SEC at creating turnovers, forcing just 14 all season.
So the turnover battle between these two units should once again prove pivotal in this bowl game rematch. After all, it was Swann's two interceptions that helped swing the game back in UGA's favor last year.
“They turn the ball over a lot. We’re going to have to capitalize on that," nose tackle Chris Mayes said. “We just have to strip the ball out, pursue to the ball. We just have to do those little things.”
Georgia beat Nebraska 45-31 last year. Of course, that came with Aaron Murray at quarterback plus Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley in the offensive fold. All of those players suffered season-ending knee injuries, and the Cornhusker defense—led by defensive end Randy Gregory (8.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for less)—looks to have improved since the last time both teams met.
But Georgia still has the incomparable Todd Gurley, the man who rushed for 125 yards in last year's meeting, along with all of the team's starting linemen from the previous contest. That should, once again, be the difference. This one will be close, as all Georgia games are, but the Bulldogs should pull off the win.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Nebraska 27