The Georgia Bulldogs are set to meet up with the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Capital One Bowl at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium on New Year's Day.
The Bulldogs' hopes for their first national title since 1980 were dashed by second-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, as the Crimson Tide prevailed with a late score to earn a spot in the BCS title game against top- ranked Notre Dame. Georgia, which was ranked No. 3 in the country entering the pseudo-national semifinal game, also lost last year's SEC Championship to LSU in blowout fashion.
"I think most of (the players) understand that you can't turn the clock back," head coach Mark Richt said about the team's emotional state following the loss to Alabama. "We fought hard, we had a great plan, we did what we could do that day. We just couldn't get it done. We didn't do enough to get it done, but everybody knows that you have to move on. There are still things that are worth playing for."
Georgia is making its 16th consecutive bowl appearance but has lost its last two bowl games, including a triple-overtime setback to Michigan State in last season's Outback Bowl.
Nebraska has also dropped its last two bowl games and is playing in the Capital One Bowl for the second straight season after falling to South Carolina a year ago. The Big Ten Legends Division champion Cornhuskers carried a six-game winning streak into the league title bout with Wisconsin, a team they had already beaten earlier in the season. However, the Badgers returned the favor the second time around with a 70-31 drubbing.
This will be the second meeting all-time between Georgia and Nebraska. The Huskers claimed a win in the 1969 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
Junior quarterback Aaron Murray broke the Georgia record for career touchdown passes (90), surpassing David Greene's total (72) by 18. Murray also became the first QB in SEC history to have three consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons. He has thrown 31 touchdowns this season with only eight interceptions, and his 3,466 passing yards and 65.4 completion percentage were both career-highs. Murray distributes his passes rather evenly, as eight different Bulldogs have hauled in multiple TD receptions on the season.
Freshman running back Todd Gurley got better and better as the season progressed, and he stepped up with 122 yards rushing and two scores on 23 carries against Alabama's stingy defense. Gurley enters this matchup as the SEC's second-leading rusher with 1,260 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 199 carries (6.3 ypc). Fellow freshman Keith Marshall complements Gurley with 723 rushing yards and eight scores.
Despite the Bulldogs' bevy of weapons on offense, the season will be remembered for some questionable execution in the final seconds of the SEC Championship. Trailing by four points with 1:08 to play, Murray led Georgia on an eight-play, 80-yard drive. But with the final seconds ticking away, the Bulldogs elected not to spike the ball, and the game ended when Chris Conley was tackled five yards short of the goal line as time expired.
"We just ran out of time," Richt said after the game.
Georgia boasts the No. 2 pass defense (173.5 ypg) in the SEC as well as the nation's No. 17 scoring defense (18.8 ppg). All-American junior linebacker Jarvis Jones battled injuries to rack up 77 tackles and 12.5 sacks in 11 games. He also forced a conference-best seven fumbles, recovering two, en route to SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Jones led the conference in tackles for loss (22.5), and his forced fumble at the one-yard line against Florida helped seal the team's signature win of the season.
However, the Bulldogs allowed Alabama to run for a SEC Championship-record 350 yards, which proved to be a key factor in the outcome.
"Some of it was just wrapping them up better," Richt said.
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez has produced five 100-yard rushing games this season, and containing him on the ground will be a key focus of Georgia's defense. Martinez finished the season as the Big Ten leader in passing efficiency and total offense. He has completed 62.2 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, averaging 205 yards per game through the air and another 75 on the ground with 10 rushing TDs.
While Martinez has been the focal point of the offense, coordinator Tim Beck said he is excited to have senior I-back Rex Burkhead back and fully healthy, given what he brings to the offense. Burkhead ran for 1,357 yards and 15 TDs last season, but a knee injury has limited him to only 74 carries this season, with 27 of those totes coming in the last two games.
"It is great to see him back out here having fun," Beck said. "The injury was something on the back of his mind, now he is a lot more carefree, I am really happy for him."
Sophomore Ameer Abdullah has filled in admirably, notching six 100-yard games over the course of the season, and will still have his number called against Georgia. Still, even with both backs at Beck's disposal, he knows his unit faces a tough challenge trying to move the ball against Georgia's defense.
"They are very athletic," Beck said. "They are a typical good SEC defense."
Nebraska's defense is somewhat of an enigma. The Cornhuskers own the nation's No. 1 pass defense, allowing a mere 148.2 yards per game to opposing QBs. But part of the reason for that is because teams have found plenty of success attacking Nebraska on the ground, as the Huskers are 95th in the country in rushing defense (195 ypg). After holding Iowa to seven points on the road a week earlier, Nebraska allowed Wisconsin to run wild for 539 yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten title game. The Badgers averaged a first down per carry as a team (10.8 ypc), as three different rushers went over 100 yards, including two who eclipsed the 200-yard mark. Make no mistake, the Cornhuskers can expect to see a heavy dose of Gurley until they prove they are up to the challenge of stopping him.
It's fair to wonder about the Bulldogs' motivation level after narrowly missing out on a spot in the BCS title game and then watching SEC foe and fourth-ranked Florida leapfrog them for a BCS bid to the Sugar Bowl. However, coach Richt has done an admirable job motivating his players this season.