- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Familiarity will not be an issue when Georgia and Nebraska meet in the Jan. 1 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. That might not be a good thing for Nebraska.
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.
“They're going to be coming with a chip on their shoulder,” said Hutson Mason, who replaced Murray under center in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech. “I'm sure they don't care that they're playing us again. I'm sure they're pumped that they're playing us again, so we'd better be ready or they're going to embarrass us.”
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.”
1dSam Khan Jr.