Two of college football powerhouses meet in the Gator Bowl to end what has been a bizarre season for both Georgia and Nebraska.
Both teams entered the season with major conference championship aspirations, but critical injuries riddled both rosters, eventually leading to eight combined losses between the two. Nebraska was without Taylor Martinez for much of the season, while Georgia lost key playmakers on offense — Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell — for various lengths of time. Both teams were left wondering what could have been in 2013 had their teams stayed healthy.
And when both teams take the field this bowl season, neither team will have what many call the best QB (statistically) in each team’s history. Martinez - the Huskers all-time total offense record holder - won’t play in the Gator Bowl, and Georgia lost franchise quarterback Aaron Murray to a torn ACL against Kentucky last month.
Both coaches need a win for momentum heading into a critical 2014 campaign, and 9-4 looks a lot better than 8-5. These two staffs know each other well as the Bulldogs topped the Cornhuskers in the 45-31 in the Capital One Bowl last year. It was only the second meeting between these two proud programs as Nebraska won the first meeting 45-6 in the 1969 Sun Bowl.
The rubber match should give fans of both teams a glimpse of the future as Hutson Mason will make his second career start for Mark Richt, while Tommy Armstrong starts in place of Martinez.
Nebraska vs. Georgia
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1. at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Georgia -9
Three Things to Watch
Which star running back is more effective
While all eyes will be on the signal callers under center, the most pivotal players for both offenses will be the running backs. And Georgia's Todd Gurley and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah are two of the best in the nation. Gurley is a workhorse that physically imposes his will inside and outside of the tackles with power, speed and quickness. Despite missing three full games and big chunks of others, he finished with 903 yards rushing on 6.3 yards per carry and scored 15 total touchdowns. Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing with 1,466 yards, including a string of eight consecutive 100-yard games, and 10 total touchdowns. Both players made critical plays in key spots for his team and each will be leaned on a big way in this old school SEC-Big Ten showdown.
Which quarterback makes the fewest mistakes
When it comes to quarterback play, much is unknown about what to expect from both. Tommy Armstrong has played more football this season (seven career starts) than his Georgia counterpart Hutson Mason (one career start). Mason, however, is a more talented passer and has three years in the system as opposed to the Nebraska freshman. He struggled mightily out of the gate against Georgia Tech but bounced back to lead an improbable comeback against the rival Jackets. Mason is a more polished passer but Armstrong is more athletic, so whichever team gets more efficient and mistake-free play from its quarterback will likely win the game.
Bo Pelini's sideline behavior
Bowl matchups feature risk taking and trick plays like no other football games, and Pelini has had some interesting and tension-filled moments on the sidelines during his up-and-down tenure in Nebraska. While he has settled down as his time at Nebraska has gone along, he has had some tenuous moments with his fan base, administration and players in 2013. His facial expression following the Hail Mary against Northwestern is absolutely priceless. In a critical bowl game in front of a restless fan base, will Pelini maintain his cool or will the emotion of the game get the better of him? Either way, anytime Pelini and the Huskers take the field in a big game, it’s appointment viewing. Especially, if the Huskers lose the fourth quarter 14-0 like they did against the Dawgs in last year’s bowl game.
Key Player: Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
Jordan Jenkins was supposed to be the break out star for Todd Grantham’s aggressive 3-4 defense this year, but Floyd has been the freshman surprise this season. He finished seventh on the team in tackles (47), posted 8.5 tackles for loss and led the team in sacks (6.5) and forced fumbles (2). Stopping Abdullah from reaching the edge and getting pressure on a freshman quarterback will be the primary objective of the 6-foot-4, 230-pound star freshman playmaker for Georgia. Keep an eye on No. 84 in the Black and Red.
Georgia busted open a close game in last year’s Capital One Bowl with two touchdowns in the final quarter to top Nebraska 45-31 behind a huge game from Aaron Murray. It’s safe to say neither quarterback will play the type of game Murray posted last year (427 yards, 5 TD), so both running backs will be on full display. Both defenses have had their share of issues this fall but both have shown flashes of better days ahead. The Bulldogs have the clear edge in terms of overall talent and their quarterback is better suited to create balance on offense. Look for a similarly close game through three quarters before Todd Gurley takes over in the final frame to the Dawgs.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 27