Georgia Bulldogs: Ameer Abdullah

The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl pits two of the nation's top runners in Georgia sophomore tailback Todd Gurley and Nebraska junior I-back Ameer Abdullah.

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

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley's use as a receiver was a big difference-maker for Georgia's offense.
2013 Stats: 144 attempts, 903 yards, 10 TDs; 30 catches, 344 yards, 5 TDs

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.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah, Chance Carter
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah has had some problems with fumbles but has been the anchor of Nebraska's offense.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

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.

Tale of the tape: Georgia-Nebraska

December, 9, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- We learned on Sunday that No. 22 Georgia (8-4) would face Nebraska (8-4) in its bowl game for the second straight season. Let's take a closer look at the two teams in advance of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, which will kick off at noon ET on New Year's Day and air on ESPN2.

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.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHow Georgia backup QB Hutson Mason does in comparison to Nebraska's backup QBs will be key in which team wins the Gator Bowl.
More similarities: It isn't just their matching 8-4 records, their having played in a bowl last season or their widespread injury problems that make these teams so similar. They have also dealt with similar problems throughout the season -- namely special teams ineptitude and ugly turnover margins. Nebraska is tied for 118th nationally with a minus-12 turnover margin (16 takeaways, 28 giveaways), while Georgia is not much better, tying for 97th with a minus-6 margin (14 takeaways, 20 giveaways).

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.

3 Up, 3 Down: Georgia 45, Nebraska 31 

January, 2, 2013
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- No. 7 Georgia fell short of its championship goal this season, but the Bulldogs still managed to finish the 2012 season with a flourish.

The Bulldogs rallied to beat No. 16 Nebraska 45-31 in Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl to clinch just the third season with 12 wins or more in program history and essentially guaranteed their first top-10 finish since 2007.

Let’s recap some of the highs and the few lows from Tuesday’s season-ending victory:

Keys for Georgia in Capital One Bowl

January, 1, 2013
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Here are three keys for Georgia in the Capital One Bowl:

1. Slow down Huskers' run: In the month since Georgia last played a game, one of the most heavily discussed weaknesses from the Bulldogs’ 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game was the 350 yards they allowed on the ground. That marked three straight games that Georgia’s opponent rushed for 300-plus yards, and that doesn’t bode well with Nebraska and its powerful running game ahead.

The Cornhuskers are eighth nationally in rushing at 254.5 yards per game, so the Bulldogs have their work cut out in trying to get a different result against Taylor Martinez (175 attempts, 973 yards, 10 TDs), Ameer Abdullah (219-1,089, 8 TDs) and Rex Burkhead (74-535, 4 TDs) than they did against Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.

2. Generate big plays: Georgia has been one of the nation’s best big-play offenses this season -- the Bulldogs have 64 plays that covered at least 25 yards -- and that capability could come in handy against Nebraska. In the Cornhuskers’ three losses, they surrendered eight touchdowns that covered 30 yards or more: four against Ohio State, three against Wisconsin and one against UCLA.

Keep an eye on freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who have combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, including eight that went for touchdowns. Also, senior receiver Tavarres King -- who set a school record with 205 receiving yards in last season’s Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State -- is the FBS’ active career leader with 18.8 yards per catch.

3. Force mistakes from Martinez: Nebraska’s quarterback has highlight-reel skills as a runner and passer, but he is prone to committing crucial errors as well. In Nebraska’s three losses, Martinez fumbled five times -- losing two -- and tossed six of his 10 total interceptions. In Nebraska’s 10 wins, he fumbled a total of 10 times.

The Cornhuskers are tied for the most fumbles in the FBS with 21 and have committed the sixth-most turnovers with 32. That seems to favor Georgia, whose defense generated 27 takeaways -- 21st nationally -- and ranked second nationally with 16 fumble recoveries. Martinez will have to keep a close watch on Georgia’s All-America outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who leads the nation with seven forced fumbles in 11 games.

Game breakdown: Georgia vs. Nebraska

December, 31, 2012
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No. 7 Georgia and No. 16 Nebraska meet on New Year’s Day in Orlando, Fla., in one of the highest-profile non-BCS games of this bowl season. The key to Tuesday’s game might be discerning which of them actually takes that reality seriously.

It’s not the BCS championship game, where Georgia could easily be playing, or the Rose Bowl, which Nebraska expected before laying an egg in a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. But the winning program on Tuesday could very well wind up where it has not been in quite some time.

Georgia was once a top-10 team essentially every season under coach Mark Richt, but it has not finished the season in the Associated Press top 10 since 2007. Likewise, Nebraska finished the season ranked in the AP top 10 eight times in nine seasons between 1993 and 2001, but it has not finished the season there in the last decade.

Let’s take a look at how they might make it there with a victory to inaugurate the new year:

No. 7 Georgia vs. No. 16 Nebraska

Tuesday, 1 p.m.
Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
ABC

Records: Georgia 11-2, Nebraska 10-3

Last game: Georgia lost 32-28 to Alabama in the SEC championship game on Dec. 1. Nebraska lost 70-31 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game on the same day.

What’s the Story? Georgia and Nebraska are both trying to snap two-game bowl losing skids and end their seasons with a milestone victory of sorts. Nebraska hasn’t won at least 11 games in a season since 2001 and Georgia has only won 12 games twice in school history.

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Scouting report: Nebraska 

December, 28, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- The winner of Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl might very well be the team that can best gear itself up for a non-BCS game when both teams’ sights were initially set much higher.

No. 7 Georgia (11-2) came within a few yards of playing for the BCS National Championship, but fell just short in a 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game. Meanwhile, all No. 16 Nebraska (10-3) had to do to play in the Rose Bowl was beat a five-loss Wisconsin team in the Big Ten championship game, but the Cornhuskers laid an egg in a 70-31 loss where they surrendered 539 rushing yards.

Although these are two of the winningest programs in college football history, Georgia and Nebraska are hardly familiar with one another. They have met just once, in the 1969 Sun Bowl, so Monday’s matchup in Orlando, Fla., stands among the high-profile non-BCS games this bowl season.

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Bulldogs look to wrap up Huskers' run

December, 19, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Stats don’t lie -- and in this case, the stats say that Georgia has not defended the run well this season.

After surrendering 300-plus rushing yards in each of the last three games, Georgia (11-2) dropped to 77th nationally in run defense with an average of 177.8 yards per game. But while they can’t dispute that Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech and Alabama all topped the 300-yard mark, the Bulldogs insist that those numbers are somewhat deceptive.

Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, after all, typically run the ball on nearly every down in their option offensive sets. And Alabama also boasts a particularly powerful running game with a veteran offensive line and two star tailbacks in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. So some Georgia defenders are quick to discount any notion that the Bulldogs are weak against the run.

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Georgia, Nebraska struggling vs. run 

December, 3, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- After both of their defenses were shredded by opponents’ running games Saturday, Capital One Bowl coaches Mark Richt and Bo Pelini obviously realize their Jan. 1 opponent will enter the game thinking run defense is an area they can exploit.

Richt’s Georgia club allowed 350 rushing yards to Alabama’s punishing offensive line and tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon in a 32-28 loss in the SEC championship game. But Pelini’s Nebraska defense endured an even more humiliating experience in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin, allowing the Badgers to rush for 539 yards -- the most ever allowed by a Cornhuskers defense -- and win 70-31.

James White
Richard Mackson/US PresswireWisconsin RB James White runs past Nebraska DB Daimion Stafford for a touchdown during the Big Ten championship game Saturday.
“You give up big rushing yards and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Pelini said Sunday night on a conference call announcing that his No. 16 Cornhuskers (10-3) would meet Richt’s No. 6 Bulldogs (11-2) on New Year’s Day in Orlando. “I know it was for us last night, our number of missed fits and missed tackles. You can’t recover from that. I’m sure Georgia, I’m sure that played a big part even though their game was a lot closer than ours. That’s going to be an area that both teams are going to have to shore up and probably an area that both teams are going to try to exploit.”

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Capital One Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
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Georgia Bulldogs (11-2) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-3)

Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, Orlando, Fla. (ABC)

Georgia take by DawgNation's David Ching: Shortly after watching his team survive Georgia’s last-ditch effort to score the winning touchdown in the closing seconds of Saturday’s SEC championship game, Alabama coach Nick Saban said it would be a “crying shame” if the Bulldogs (11-2) didn’t play in a BCS bowl.

The 32-28 win by Saban’s Crimson Tide ensured that would not be the case, however, spoiling Georgia’s BCS championship hopes in soul-crushing fashion. The Bulldogs no doubt think it’s a shame, as well, after falling 5 yards short of the winning score and a chance to play Notre Dame for a national title. Instead, Georgia will attempt to put the finishing touches on what could become the best season in a decade by winning its bowl. A bowl victory would give Georgia its third 12-win season in school history.

The Bulldogs got to this point by playing stout defense in the second half of the season -- starting with a 17-9 win against then-No. 2 Florida -- to go along with a balanced offense led by quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Todd Gurley. They swept rivals Florida, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech for the second straight season and rallied from the lone blemish in the regular season, a 35-7 loss at South Carolina, in impressive fashion.

The Bulldogs will naturally ask what if for months after Saturday’s crushing loss, but Georgia’s back-to-back SEC East championships and the near-miss against Alabama indicate that the Bulldogs are once again major players on the national scene.




Nebraska take from Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Bo Pelini’s Huskers head to the Capital One Bowl for the second straight season, and this time they do so with an extremely sour taste in their mouths. Nebraska was on the cusp of its first conference championship since 1999 after a resilient performance down the stretch in Big Ten play. Needing only to beat a Wisconsin team it defeated Sept. 29, Nebraska imploded in the Big Ten title game, surrendering 70 points and 539 rushing yards, the most rushing yards it has ever allowed.

How will the Huskers respond? Until Saturday night, their resiliency had been their hallmark, as they erased double-digit, second-half deficits in four Big Ten games (versus Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State) to win the Legends Division. Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides from 2011, completing 62.2 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He shares the backfield with an outstanding group of ball carriers, led by senior Rex Burkhead and sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who filled in admirably for Burkhead during most of the season. The Huskers' offense can strike quickly and often, but it also is too prone to mistakes with 32 turnovers, the sixth most in the FBS.

Nebraska’s defense truly has been a mixed bag this season. The Huskers improved down the stretch in Big Ten play but fell apart in losses to UCLA (653 yards allowed), Ohio State (498 yards allowed) and Wisconsin (640 yards allowed). The Blackshirts will need to rebound in a big way against quarterback Aaron Murray and Georgia.

Pregame: Capital One Bowl

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
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Georgia (11-2, 7-1 SEC) vs. Nebraska (10-3, 7-1 Big Ten)

Who to watch: Considering that the two defenses in the Capital One Bowl rank 95th (Nebraska at 194.9 rushing yards allowed per game) and 77th (Georgia, 177.8 ypg) against the run, we recommend that you keep an eye on the respective teams’ running threats.

The run is particularly important for Nebraska, which ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense at 254.5 yards per game. Quarterback Taylor Martinez (175 attempts, 973 yards, 10 TDs) and running backs Ameer Abdullah (219-1,089, 8 TDs) and Rex Burkhead (74-535, 4 TDs) present a major threat for a Bulldogs defense that has surrendered 300-plus rushing yards in three straight games.

Georgia’s offense is more balanced than Nebraska’s -- the Bulldogs average 274.2 passing yards and 184.2 rushing yards per game -- but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will no doubt try to set up his passing game with his dynamite one-two punch of freshman tailbacks, Todd Gurley (199-1,260, 16 TDs) and Keith Marshall (109-723, 8 TDs). Marshall has two touchdown runs of 70-plus yards this season, providing the home run threat out of the backfield that the Bulldogs have lacked for several years.

What to Watch: Georgia’s defensive front against Nebraska’s offensive line. The Cornhuskers have a pair of All-Big Ten offensive linemen in guard Spencer Long and tackle Jeremiah Sirles, but center Justin Jackson is out with an injured ankle. Their backup center, either Mark Pelini or Cole Pensick, will not have to go up against Georgia’s senior All-SEC noseguard, John Jenkins, who will miss the game after being declared academically ineligible last week. But they’ll hardly get much of a break in having to block 6-foot-6, 355-pound nose Kwame Geathers, who will replace Jenkins in the starting lineup.

Nonetheless, after getting shredded by Alabama’s powerful running game, Georgia’s defensive line will be subject to close observation against Nebraska’s talented runners.

Why watch? The Capital One Bowl is traditionally one of the highest-profile non-BCS bowl games, and this one fits the bill. No. 7 Georgia came within 5 yards of upsetting Alabama and playing for the BCS title. No. 16 Nebraska could have played in the Rose Bowl before laying an egg against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

Surprisingly enough, though, these teams have played only once before despite their positions as two of the winningest programs in college football history. Nebraska’s 45-6 win over the Bulldogs in the 1969 Sun Bowl still ranks as the worst bowl loss in Georgia history.

Prediction: Nebraska is going to score, but can it score enough to keep up with Georgia? The Cornhuskers have played six games against teams that rank in the nation’s top 50 in scoring offense. They went 3-3 in those games and allowed an average of 39.5 points per game. And here’s the kicker: Georgia boasts the highest-scoring offense Nebraska has faced this season, as the Bulldogs rank 19th nationally in scoring at 37.2 points per game. Georgia 38, Nebraska 24.

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