Georgia Bulldogs: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Juniors take center stage
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:
It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.
Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.
Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.
Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.
What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.
What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.
To watch the trophy presentation of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, click here.
Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.
What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.
Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.
Mitch Sherman and David Ching come together for a final discussion on the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, set for Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2:
How motivated is Georgia to win this game and why?
Ching: That's the big question entering this game, isn't it? It doesn't feel like either fan base is particularly jazzed about this matchup since these teams just played in a bowl a year ago. It wouldn't be a surprise if the teams deal with the same problem. Georgia seems like the more talented team here, but the coaches have to convince the Bulldogs that this is a game worth playing their best.
Sherman: I don’t expect motivation to be a problem for Nebraska. The Huskers don’t want their streak of nine-win seasons -- a point of much discussion and pride -- to end. A victory over an SEC opponent would serve as boost for Bo Pelini’s program and the Big Ten. Moreover, it has been a long, trying season in Lincoln; playing well in the Gator Bowl could change the narrative and allow the Huskers and their fans to focus on positives.
What do you expect out of the quarterback position?
Ching: Hutson Mason has the benefit of already making one start in a huge game. He started slowly against Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, but helped the Bulldogs rally for a double-overtime win. Nebraska has a talented secondary that will test him, but I expect Mason to perform well. He has waited his turn behind Aaron Murray, but is well prepared to become a solid performer as a senior in 2014.
Sherman: We saw at the Big House in November that Tommy Armstrong has a knack for playing well under the spotlight. And for a redshirt freshman with seven starts under his belt, New Year’s Day is big. Armstrong is motivated. His linemen are healthier than at any point since late October. His receivers are healed up, and while Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa won’t surprise Georgia with their athleticism after last year, look for the Huskers to make plays in the passing game.
Who holds the edge when Nebraska has the football?
Sherman: If we’re answering based off the second half of the season, it’s Georgia, despite its defensive injuries and propensity to allow chunks of yardage. Offensively, Nebraska simply hit a wall after mid-October, with the exception of the Michigan State game. The Huskers didn’t once scored 30 points after all-conference guard Spencer Long went down on Oct. 12 at Purdue. Injuries are the wild card, though. Long remains out, but most of the others who missed time are back. If Nebraska creates some momentum early, it could top 400 yards for the first time in five games.
Who holds the edge when UGA has the football?
Ching: Georgia. The Huskers haven't defended the run particularly well -- they're 60th nationally at 161.2 yards per game -- and that doesn't bode well for stopping Todd Gurley after he's had a month to allow his injured ankle to heal. Nebraska's defense has been fairly average in every way, so even with someone other than Murray at the helm, I expect Georgia's high-scoring offense to keep rolling in Jacksonville.
Sherman: Season-long statistics don’t tell the whole story of this Nebraska defense. The Blackshirts are much improved from September, when they were trampled in the opening quarter by an FCS-level foe. Since Nov. 1, the Huskers rank among the top 20 defensive units nationally. They’re especially strong against the pass. And with time to prepare, Pelini will devise a scheme to test Mason. As for Gurley, well, he could pose a problem. The Huskers will miss defensive end Avery Moss. And Big Ten results so far this bowl season don’t bode well for Nebraska.
They won 67.4 percent.
Bet you thought that rate was higher.
Seems we’ve watched these two operate forever. In the past four years, Murray and Martinez meant something important to college football. They tormented defensive coordinators and served as the poster boys for a pair of proud programs, trying -- desperately close at times -- to break through.
It’s not going to happen in their time.
Despite 64 victories between them (35 for Murray, 29 for Martinez), neither won a conference title. At Georgia and Nebraska, a conference title, at minimum, is the standard of success.
Yet as Murray and Martinez depart the college game in sadly anticlimactic fashion as the Bulldogs (8-4) and Huskers (8-4) meet for a New Year’s Day rematch in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, they leave a record of greatness.
The QB persevered until Nov. 23, when he suffered an ACL tear in a 59-17 victory over Kentucky. Murray played through the injury for one series but couldn't fight the pain any further.
In similar fashion, Martinez battled for two weeks through a foot injury, suffered in the Huskers’ season opener.
He led the Huskers to a 21-3 edge over UCLA in the second quarter on Sept 14, but any thoughts of a storybook ending to his career crashed to a halt in the second half. The Bruins scored 38 consecutive points. Martinez clearly wasn’t himself, unable use his usually dangerous feet to stem momentum.
A one-game comeback fell flat at Minnesota in October. Martinez was finished. He lost his final two starts and an opportunity to join Colin Kaepernick as the only players in FBS history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 3,000. He finished with 7,258 passing yards and 2,975 rushing yards.
He lost his chance to win a conference title, a hope so promising back in 2010, when Martinez led Nebraska to a 17-point lead over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game as a freshman.
Martinez never broke through.
“It’s been hard,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “This whole season’s been hard on him. It’s not the way you want to see him go out.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt said the same thing about Murray. Richt visited a hospitalized Murray after he underwent surgery on the damaged knee. Richt said he wanted to feel sorry for his quarterback, but Murray wouldn’t let him.
His positivity is relentless. And that’s part of Murray’s legacy, alongside the 13,166 passing yards and 121 touchdown passes.
No Southeastern Conference quarterback before Murray threw for 3,000 yards in three seasons. Murray did it four times. He broke Danny Wuerffel’s SEC record for touchdown passes and Tim Tebow’s record for total yardage.
But, like Martinez, his teams never broke through.
Murray’s best chance fell 5 yards short last year against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He targeted Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone, a shot within reach to win an SEC title as the clock ticked away. Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley deflected the pass to Georgia receiver Chris Conley. Conley slid to the turf, surrounded by defenders. Time expired on Murray’s best opportunity.
It all felt anticlimactic for Murray, though nothing like this year.
“Obviously I had a vision of how I wanted to go out,” Murray said recently.
This wasn’t it.
“It’s almost like I didn't say goodbye,” he said, “which, I guess, is a good thing. I guess it's like, 'to be continued.' I'm not leaving. I'm always a Bulldog. I'll always be a Bulldog, and I guess if I would have been there to wave and really cherish the end of it, that would have been like, 'Book closed, it's over,' and I feel like it's not over for me.”
Murray is eloquent and charismatic. Martinez is quite the opposite.
Uncomfortable in the spotlight, the Nebraska quarterback hasn’t spoken to the media since the Minnesota game.
But Martinez appears to be at peace. He has remained at the side of teammates through conditioning drills and practices this month. Those close to him, though, say he’s devastated by the injury.
A generation from now, Murray and Martinez will be remembered not for this anticlimactic ending or their inability to break through and win a championship.
Time will heal their wounds. History will reflect well on their legacies. College football will remember them.
ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.
1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?
Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.
Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.
2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?
Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.
Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.
Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.
Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.
In the first installment of a three-part look over the next two weeks at the New Year's Day game in Jacksonville, Fla., we examine the impact of Gurley and Abdullah.
Todd Gurley, Georgia
Season recap: Gurley strained his quadriceps while completing a 75-yard touchdown run in the second possession of the opener against Clemson. The injury limited him to 12 carries (for 154 yards) in the opener and plagued him for weeks -- right up to when he sprained his ankle in Game 4 against LSU and missed the next three games. Gurley returned to total 187 yards against Florida, but has never been the same dominant runner this season. And yet he still posted huge numbers down the stretch, including a 157-yard game against Auburn and a 158-yard game against Georgia Tech.
What he means to the offense: Georgia is a completely different team when Gurley is in the lineup. Take his four-touchdown outing against Georgia Tech, for example. Georgia ran four plays in the two overtime periods -- all of which were Gurley runs and two of which went for touchdowns. It's no coincidence that the offense bogged down, or that the Bulldogs lost twice, when Gurley sat out with the ankle injury.
Season highlight: The Georgia Tech game was probably the biggest highlight, but Gurley had a series of strong outings. He ran for 132 yards and had his first career touchdown catch in a narrow win against South Carolina. And the Bulldogs probably don't beat Florida without Gurley's two early touchdowns.
Biggest change from 2012: Georgia made it an offseason point of emphasis to work its running backs into the passing game more heavily, and it paid off. Gurley was a potent receiving weapon down the stretch, logging 87 receiving yards against Florida, 77 against Auburn and 90 against Kentucky. Only four Bulldogs finished with more receiving yards than Gurley's 344 and he tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches.
Against Nebraska last year: Gurley rushed for 81 of his 125 yards and scored a touchdown in the first half of the Bulldogs' 45-31 win against Nebraska in last season's Capital One Bowl.
Crystal ball: Without question, a healthy Gurley ranks among the nation's best running backs. He hasn't been healthy much this season and is still poised to rush for more than 1,000 yards. It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see him rank among the nation's leading Heisman Trophy contenders in 2014 and sit near the top of most projections for NFL draft-eligible running backs at this time next season.
2013 stats: 254 attempts, 1,568 yards, 8 TDs; 26 catches, 232 yards, 2 TDs
Season recap: En route to third-team All-America honors by the Associated Press and a consensus spot on the All-Big Ten first team, the junior from Homewood, Ala., topped 100 yards 10 times. He also recorded the fifth 1,500-yard rushing season at Nebraska, cementing his spot among the school’s storied history of backs.
What he means to the offense: Much like Gurley, just about everything. Nebraska this year went offensively as far as Abdullah could lead it. Conservatively, he was worth two wins to this team. The stats are impressive, but they don’t measure his value. He is the heartbeat of these Huskers, illustrated by his naming as a captain at season’s end, team MVP and lifter of the year.
Season highlight: Start with his breakthrough game in the Big Ten opener against Illinois, as Abdullah rushed for a career-best 225 yards. He churned out 123 against Michigan State’s top-rated defense. Looking for one play? Take your pick between the game-winning touchdown catch at Michigan or the 16-yard conversion on fourth-and-15 against Northwestern that set the stage for Nebraska’s Hail Mary win.
Biggest change from 2012: Even after Abdullah rushed for 1,137 yards as a sophomore, questions remained about his durability. He was, after all, a fill-in last year for Rex Burkhead, the workhorse who missed much of the season with a knee injury. Abdullah left no doubt this year about his toughness and developed into a complete back as his per-carry average jumped from 5.0 to 6.2.
Against Georgia last year: Abdullah rushed for 48 yards on seven carries, with the bulk of Nebraska’s work on the ground going to the senior Burkhead. Abdullah’s 26-yard run on the Huskers’ opening drive of the third quarter helped them take a 31-23 lead before the Bulldogs scored the final 22 points.
Crystal ball: Abdullah will seek an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, but he’s not likely to long consider their findings. Expect him back in 2014, bidding to become the first player in Nebraska history to amass three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. If he can avoid fumbles -- Abdullah lost five this year and 15 over three seasons -- a run at the Heisman isn’t out of the question.
The Cornhuskers boasted the nation's top-rated pass defense, allowing 148.2 yards per game, into the game before Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray eviscerated the Nebraska secondary in last season's 45-31 win at the Capital One Bowl. Even if a knee injury will prevent Murray from appearing in the rematch, many of Georgia's major offensive players from that game are still around.
The announcement of the Gator Bowl matchup earned a lukewarm reception on both sides since the two teams met just a year ago, concluding more successful seasons for each club. They're both 8-4 this time following injury-riddled falls, so the decreased stakes make it a necessity for the coaching staffs to guard against complacency during bowl practices.
There is also the matter of starting off 2014 on a positive note.
“It's just another game, just another win that we hope to get,” said tailback Todd Gurley, who rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown against the Cornhuskers last season. “It starts off the next year just right, just going into next season with a win.”
The good news on both sides is that preparation -- often an obstacle during bowl season since the teams are typically total strangers -- is a bit easier this time around.
Eight of Georgia's offensive starters in last season's Capital One Bowl -- all but Murray, injured tailback Keith Marshall and 2012 senior receiver Tavarres King -- should play an active role for the Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl. And Nebraska returns six starters from that game, including four starters -- safeties Corey Cooper and Andrew Green and cornerbacks Josh Mitchell and first-team All-Big Ten pick Ciante Evans -- in the secondary.
“There are not a lot of changes with either team, quite frankly, so I’m sure last year’s game is going to be very valuable for both coaching staffs to try to decide how to attack this year,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said at his Monday press conference.
The Cornhuskers haven't been as effective at defending the pass this season -- they rank 22nd nationally, allowing 205.8 yards per game through the air -- but they are still more than formidable in that department.
Georgia's passing game, meanwhile, remained just as effective. The Bulldogs average 313.8 passing yards per game, good for 16th nationally, and still have players who combined for three of Murray's five passing touchdowns against Nebraska.
One of them stands as perhaps the most memorable play of Chris Conley's career: when he took a tunnel screen 87 yards to give Georgia a two-touchdown lead and essentially seal the Bulldogs' win.
“I was definitely out of breath when I finished that run. It was fun,” Conley said. “Anyone could have scored right there. There was no one within 20 yards of me. If I would have gotten caught there, I would have been ragged on by all the guys.”
Certainly that play -- and the others that helped Murray torch Nebraska for 427 passing yards -- formed a bitter memory for the Cornhuskers who will get a rare second crack against their last bowl opponent. As Mason mentioned, the Bulldogs realize they'll need to be sharp on offense in the rematch since Nebraska's typically proud defense has something to prove after last season's lackluster performance.
“That will be fun because you know they'll definitely remember what happened last game and they'll definitely be eyeing us and keying in on us and ready for what we're going to throw at them,” Conley said. “So if they know it's coming, we still have to be able to execute it and be able to get those plays off.”
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl
Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 1, noon ET, ESPN2
Nebraska (8-4) vs. Georgia (8-4)
Coach: Mark Richt (13th season)
Record: 8-4, 5-3 SEC
Combined opponents’ record: 90-56
Common opponents: none
Leading passer: Aaron Murray, 225-347 (64.8 percent) for 3,975 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Murray is injured. In his place, Georgia looks to Hutson Mason, 46-71 (64.8) for 648 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Leading rusher: Todd Gurley, 144 carries for 903 yards in nine games (6.3 per carry) and 10 touchdowns.
Leading receiver: Chris Conley, 42 receptions for 605 yards (14.4 per catch) and four touchdowns.
Leading tackler: Linebacker Ramik Wilson, 72 solos and 56 assists, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and seven quarterback hurries.
What to know: The Bulldogs fought injuries almost from the outset after a three-point, season-opening loss to Clemson. The low point came during the first three weeks of October, when Gurley, the sophomore tailback, missed time with an ankle injury as the Bulldogs snuck past Tennessee before losing to Missouri at home and at Vanderbilt. Since Gurley’s return, Georgia has won four of five games, losing only at Auburn on Ricardo Louis’ miraculous game-winning catch. Murray, the record-setting senior QB, went down with ACL tear against Kentucky, but Mason, a junior, stepped in nicely to throw two touchdowns against Georgia Tech. The receiving duo of Conley and Michael Bennett, both 6-foot-3 and back from midseason absences, will test the Nebraska secondary. It’s been an adventure for the Bulldogs on defense after replacing a talented, veteran group from a year ago. Eight opponents scored 30 points or more. Georgia was especially susceptible against strong aerial attacks and ranked last in the SEC in allowing 7.6 yards per passing attempt.
Key matchup: Gurley vs. Nebraska’s defensive front seven. As Nebraska gets healthy on offense and prepares to face a Georgia defensive unit that has struggled plenty this year, you might expect the Huskers to fare well in a shootout, especially with Murray on the sideline. Not probable. It didn’t work last year in the Capital One Bowl, won by Georgia 45-31 after a close 2½ quarters. To succeed in Jacksonville, the Huskers likely need a strong defensive showing focused on Gurley, the bruising runner who finished strong with 122 yards and four scores against Georgia Tech. Nebraska was gouged on the ground by the likes of Wyoming, South Dakota State, Minnesota and Northwestern this year. Gurley is better than all of their backs. But the Huskers’ defensive front, notably first-year starters Randy Gregory, Vincent Valentine Avery Moss and Michael Rose, have shown rapid improvement and now rank as a strength of this team.
Remembering last year: Georgia closed its 45-31 victory over the Cornhuskers in the Capital One Bowl with a 21-0 run -- featuring touchdown passes from Aaron Murray to Chris Conley of 49 and 87 yards, respectively. Murray torched a previously stellar Nebraska pass defense for 427 yards and five touchdowns and Todd Gurley ran for 125 yards and a score. Huskers running back Rex Burkhead (140 rushing yards and one TD plus 39 receiving and another score) and quarterback Taylor Martinez (204 passing yards, two touchdowns plus 46 rushing) had their moments, but Nebraska's porous defense let the its second-half lead slip away.
Who's under center?: Both of these teams featured a first-time starting quarterback in their last game. Hutson Mason led Georgia back from a 20-0 deficit to beat rival Georgia Tech in double overtime, passing for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The results weren't so positive for Ron Kellogg III in replacing Martinez. He passed for 199 yards, one touchdown and two picks and the Huskers lost 38-17 to Iowa.
Injury issues: The injuries to Murray and Martinez create perhaps the most glaring injury absences from last season's standouts, but both teams have struggled with physical ailments throughout the year. Martinez suffered a foot injury in the first game that hampered him initially and eventually shut him down by midseason. The Huskers also lost valuable offensive lineman Spencer Long and saw a number of other linemen deal with injuries, rendering a formerly dangerous offense ineffective. Sound familiar Georgia fans? Murray made it to the end of the season, but many of his most dangerous weapons did not. Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Keith Marshall all suffered season-ending knee injuries before midseason and All-SEC tailback Gurley led a big group of players who suffered multiple-game injuries.
Hailing Mary: Although it wasn't technically a “Hail Mary,” perhaps the most memorable play from Georgia's season came when Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall launched a 73-yard bomb into double coverage in the game's final minute, only to have Bulldogs safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons converge and deflect the ball to Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis, who caught it for the game-winning touchdown. Likewise, Northwestern was on its way to a 24-21 win over the Cornhuskers before third-string quarterback Kellogg's Hail Mary deflected backward to Jordan Westerkamp for the game-winning score.
Best wins: Nebraska doesn't have a win against a ranked team, but it beat Penn State (7-5) in overtime and edged Michigan (also 7-5) 17-13. Georgia started the season with wins against No. 9 South Carolina (10-2) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) in the first month. The Bulldogs also edged rivals Florida (4-8) and Georgia Tech (7-5).
Worst losses: No. 17 UCLA scored 31 unanswered points to beat Nebraska 41-21 in September. The Huskers also turned it over five times in a 41-28 loss to No. 4 Michigan State in mid-November. Georgia's narrow losses to No. 12 Clemson and No. 2 Auburn were painful, but the two-game midseason losing streak against No. 8 Missouri (41-26) and Vanderbilt (31-27) might have been worse because of the injuries that weakened the Bulldogs' offense in those games.
Offensive stars: Gurley (903 rushing yards, 10 TDs in nine games) and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (ninth nationally with 1,568 and 8 TDs) create an intriguing rushing matchup between two of the nation's best backs.
Defensive stars: Georgia inside linebacker Ramik Wilson leads the SEC and is 10th nationally with 128 tackles, plus he's tied for the team lead with 11 tackles for a loss. Junior college transfer Randy Gregory is a force on Nebraska's defense, leading the Huskers with 17 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries from his defensive end position.
X-factor: Quarterback composure will be worth watching. We know Mason will start for Georgia after leading the comeback against Georgia Tech, although he got off to a slow start in that game. Kellogg tossed two first-quarter interceptions in the disappointing loss to Iowa. Freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr., who has started seven games this season, could also get the starting nod against the Bulldogs. Regardless of who starts for the Huskers, the team whose inexperienced quarterback plays a steadier game could very well end up as the winner.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-4) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (8-4)
Jan. 1, noon ET, Jacksonville, Fla. (ESPN2)
NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS BREAKDOWN
Nebraska enters the bowl season with a chance to finish 9-4 for the third time under coach Bo Pelini. In the other three seasons, it finished 10-4.
The Huskers lost record-setting senior quarterback Taylor Martinez to a foot injury that limited him to just one appearance in Big Ten play.
Right guard Spencer Long, their best offensive lineman, went down with a season-ending knee injury in early October. A devastating string of injuries along the line followed, transforming the offense from this team's strength in September to a liability by November.
If not for a 49-yard Hail Mary completion by third-string quarterback Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp against Northwestern, Nebraska would have lost its final three home games.
Harrowing wins at Michigan, featuring heroics by freshman QB Tommy Armstrong, and in overtime at Penn State allowed the Huskers to stay afloat. The young defense matured behind breakout star Randy Gregory, but a five-turnover day against Michigan State eliminated the Huskers from league-title contention on Nov. 16 -- earlier than at any time previously under Pelini.
Nebraska finished minus-12 for the year in turnover margin, better than only three teams nationally. Repeated punt-return miscues also proved costly.
Throw in a loss to UCLA (in which the Bruins scored the final 38 points), the unearthing of an unpleasant two-year-old Pelini audio tape and a meltdown by the coach during and after a post-Thanksgiving home loss to Iowa, and you've got a season that was anything but normal in Lincoln. -- Mitch Sherman
Mark Richt's Bulldogs recovered from an injury-induced midseason lull by winning four of their final five games -- with the one loss coming in heartbreaking fashion, when Auburn's Ricardo Louis caught a deflected pass for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
Georgia averaged 41.2 points per game once Gurley returned to the lineup, completing the season with a comeback, overtime win over Georgia Tech where Gurley scored four touchdowns even without SEC career passing leader Aaron Murray leading the offense.
Murray will miss the bowl game because of a torn ACL he suffered against Kentucky on senior night, so Hutson Mason will once again be under center for the Bulldogs. He has performed well thus far, going 46-for-71 for 648 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Meanwhile, Georgia's young defense has one more opportunity to develop some continuity heading into 2014. The Bulldogs surrendered a whopping 29.4 points and 381.2 yards per game, although they have generally started slowly and played better as games progressed in the second half of the season. -- David Ching
LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. -- Myles Autry is still on the sidelines. A vicious injury to his knee last fall, with tears to his ACL, MCL and meniscus, has kept the Norcross (Ga.) High School athlete from participating in basketball, track, spring practice and now the summer camp series. And it is killing him.
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Newell, who claims 34 offers, announced his top six via social media on Saturday. The schools to make the cut, in alphabetical order, are Georgia, Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska, South Carolina and USC.
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During the Norcross spring game on Friday, Carter and offensive tackle Horatio Walker tangled as they went at each other in the trenches. Walker held Carter’s jersey and was rewarded with a shot to the helmet.
“Well it was a run, and I don’t think Horatio respects me on the run yet, but it is all good,” Carter said between guffaws. “He tried to bully me around, but I was not having that so I had to hit him back. I was having fun out there.”
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TAMU Asst. Tops Recruiter Power Rankings
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin