Dawg fans got a lesson in bowl politics when both their likely destination and opponent changed last Sunday evening. A Georgia-Michigan pairing in the Gator Bowl had been a possibility since Georgia’s loss at Auburn in mid-November. On Sunday we began to hear rumors of renewed interest by the Chick-fil-A Bowl in a Georgia-Miami matchup, especially if the Outback Bowl chose Texas A&M.
The ACC reportedly applied pressure on the bowl to take its runner-up, Duke, knocking Miami down to a lesser bowl. With the Georgia-Miami game no longer possible and LSU headed to the Outback Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl chose to extend a bid to Texas A&M. It’s the Aggies’ first trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and it will likely be the final collegiate game for Heisman quarterback Johnny Manziel.
That dropped Georgia to the Gator bowl which is 1) what we had expected and 2) reasonable considering Georgia’s record. The surprise was Georgia’s opponent. The final Big 12 results pushed Kansas State to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Arizona with Nebraska the expected opponent. The talk is that Kansas State coach Bill Snyder objected to a pairing with Nebraska (he and Bo Pelini have some bad blood), so the bowl selected a Big 10 team with a worse record, Michigan. That left the Gator with little choice but to arrange a sub-optimal rematch between Georgia and Nebraska.
Fun stuff, right? Two bowls that could have had interesting pairings – the Snyder/Pelini angle in Arizona and a rare Georgia/Michigan battle in Jacksonville – instead end up with games that no one wanted. Fans and players alike responded with outright repulsion, and administrators were left to contort themselves into ridiculous half-hearted sales pitches for a game with higher ticket prices than Georgia-Florida.
That was last week. Georgia still has a game to play. This time of year, more emphasis (probably too much) is put on motivation. Which team wants to be there, and which team has one eye on the swag their buddies in the BCS bowl got? Georgia might seem at a disadvantage there, but Nebraska isn’t in great shape after being passed over for the bowl they expected to get. Add in the instability of their coaching situation, and the Huskers also have some things to work through with their therapist over the break.
Both teams have changed a good bit from the last meeting. They’ll each be without their starting quarterback. The Murray-Martinez rematch is now Mason versus whichever backup Nebraska goes with. The Georgia defense that struggled to stop Nebraska’s offense a year ago is gone, and its replacement has had its own issues. That Nebraska offense is different, too, with the quarterback injured, dynamic back Rex Burkhead gone, and turnovers a big problem.
The Huskers now lean more than ever on outstanding tailback Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah had 6.9 yards per carry while sharing the load with Burkhead against Georgia last year, and he’s put up over 1,500 yards this season as the featured back. He put up over 120 yards and 5.6 yards per carry against an incredibly good Michigan State defense just a few weeks ago, and he’s rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 of Nebraska’s 12 games.
Georgia has played the tougher schedule by far – Nebraska has faced only two ranked opponents (UCLA and Michigan State) and lost both by double-digits. In fact, it’s been a rough stretch for the Huskers since midseason. They started the year 5-1 but are just 3-3 since as they’ve had to go three deep at the quarterback position. Those three wins include a Hail Mary pass to beat Northwestern, an ugly 17-13 win over a struggling Michigan team, and an overtime win against overmatched Penn State. As you might expect with uncertainty under center, turnovers have become an issue – Nebraska has turned it over 10 times in their final three regular season games.
Nebraska’s late-season problems might seem to give Georgia the advantage, and the Dawgs are about a 10-point favorite as bowl practice begins.