A month ago, Georgia and Nebraska both had their sights set much higher than the Capital One Bowl.
But after each team suffered severely disappointing losses in their respective conference championship games, here they are in Orlando, Fla., trying to salvage the finale for seasons that could have ended under much brighter spotlights.
“To be that close, it’s definitely a memorable season, a season I know I’ll be telling my kids [about] one day, and I know a lot of Georgia fans really enjoyed the season,” Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray said. “But it can definitely hurt us if we don’t win this game, drop out of the top 10 and then it just becomes just another season.”
The winner of Tuesday’s bowl game very well might be the team that takes that philosophy seriously.
No. 7 Georgia (11-2) came within five yards of upsetting Alabama before falling 32-28 in the SEC championship game -- the contest that determined Notre Dame’s opponent in the BCS title game. And No. 16 Nebraska (10-3) expected to be playing in Tuesday’s Rose Bowl, but it fell flat in the Big Ten championship game, surrendering 539 rushing yards to five-loss Wisconsin in a 70-31 defeat.
Those letdowns create reasonable questions as to whether either team will be mentally prepared to play in a non-BCS game, but the Bulldogs and Cornhuskers both insist they will be ready.
“It’s not the first time we’ve gotten hit in the mouth,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “Everybody who plays the sport of football, or plays athletics, goes through a tough time. The way you’re defined isn’t by what happens to you, but the way you react to it. Our guys are looking forward to the next opportunity to go out there and play. The opportunity to play against Georgia is great.”
Both teams boast senior-laden defenses, so this also represents the final college outing for some of them, and perhaps the final game of any sort for those who are unlikely to make it to the NFL. Plus it offers a chance for draft-eligble juniors -- players like Georgia linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, who are projected as possible first-round draft picks -- to complete their college careers in style.
“I feel like for the seniors, especially for us, we’ve got one more time to play and put that G on our head,” Georgia senior linebacker Michael Gilliard said.
It’s not a Rose Bowl crown or Waterford Crystal football that goes to a BCS champion, but Pelini and Georgia coach Mark Richt have also pointed toward milestone win totals that would come with a win in Tuesday’s bowl game.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was commonplace for Nebraska to post double-digit victories in a season, but the Cornhuskers haven’t won 11 games since 2001. Pelini has won at least nine games in each of his seasons as Nebraska’s coach, but has yet to win more than 10 or rank better than 14th in the final Associated Press poll.
“We won 10 games for a reason,” Pelini said. “It’s not easy winning 10. We’ve got a tremendous challenge ahead of us to try to get 11.”
Similarly, Richt has piloted the Bulldogs to back-to-back SEC East titles, but carries a two-game bowl losing streak into the Nebraska game. Georgia is also trying to avoid losing the final two games of the season for the second straight year.
His team generated a great deal of positive attention by nearly elbowing its way into the BCS final, but Richt realizes that a loss to Nebraska would neutralize much of the goodwill that the Bulldogs’ gritty effort against Alabama generated.
“I will be challenging our leadership to finish better than we did a year ago and to solidify the job that they’ve done, because I think they’ve done an outstanding job to this point,” Richt said. “I think they need to put an exclamation point on it or at least finish strong in a manner worthy of the way they led the entire offseason from January until now. That will be a big part of it.
“I’ll be talking a lot to the younger guys -- the guys who know they are going to be coming back -- to honor those guys with the way they play. Bowl games tend to shape people’s opinion of your team and your program.”