- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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.
Five headlines: Check out our Insider recap of the biggest UGA-related storylines for the bowl and a full Insider scouting report on the Cornhuskers.
Players to watch:
1. Jarvis Jones. The junior outside linebacker -- whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay project as a top-five NFL prospect -- will try to etch his name atop Georgia’s season sack list in potentially his final college game. Jones has 12.5 sacks this season, placing him within reach of David Pollack’s record of 14 set in 2002.
2. Keith Marshall. Todd Gurley (199-1,260, 16 TDs) would be an obvious pick after an All-SEC freshman season -- particularly in light of Nebraska’s woes against the run -- but Marshall (109-723, 8 TDs) might be just as intriguing a pick. Gurley’s fellow freshman is the best home-run threat in Georgia’s backfield in years, as his average of 6.6 yards per carry can attest. Nebraska has been vulnerable to the big running play at times.
3. Kwame Geathers. When Richt announced last week that senior defensive lineman John Jenkins is academically ineligible for the bowl game, that put an even bigger weight on Geathers’ wide shoulders. The junior nose guard might want to skip his senior season -- and he could earn some NFL attention with a big outing against Nebraska while having the nose position to himself.
1. Taylor Martinez. It would appear that Nebraska’s hopes for victory hinge on its quarterback playing a great game. A talented run-pass threat, Martinez (175-973, 10 TDs) is a threat to score on any play. But he’s also prone to making mistakes, as he did in the Big Ten championship game, where he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.
2. Eric Martin. The senior hasn’t had a season in Jones’ class, but he presents a similar threat off the edge. He leads the Huskers with 8.5 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss and also forced two fumbles. The leading playmaker on Nebraska’s thin defensive line definitely will give Georgia’s offensive tackles something to worry about.
3. Rex Burkhead. After rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011, knee injuries limited Burkhead to 535 yards and four scores in just seven games this fall. He returned to the lineup in the second half of the regular-season finale against Iowa and was productive in Nebraska’s final two games. The Huskers even had him back to return punts against Wisconsin. Ameer Abdullah (219-1,089, 8 TDs) fared well in Burkhead’s absence, but it would not be a surprise to see Nebraska give Burkhead steady work in the bowl game.
Georgia’s front seven vs. Nebraska’s running game
Martinez (212-for-341, 2,667 yards, 21 TDs, 10 INTs) has had a decent season throwing the ball, but it’s Nebraska’s running game that should concern Georgia’s defense -- particularly after the Bulldogs surrendered 300-plus rushing yards in each of the last three games. Georgia’s offense is going to score against Nebraska’s porous defense. If the Bulldogs can slow down the Huskers’ powerful rushing attack, it should win fairly easily. That’s a big if, however.
By the Numbers:
1. Chasing history. Jones isn’t the only Bulldog who can claim a piece of school history with a big game Tuesday. Quarterback Aaron Murray is within reach of several school records -- including completion percentage (he’s at 65.44 percent, just ahead of Mike Bobo’s record 65.03 from 1997); total offense (with 3,395 yards, he is just behind Matthew Stafford’s record of 3,499 from 2008); touchdown passes (his 31 TDs trail his own record of 35 from last season); completions (with 231, he is 38 behind Eric Zeier’s 1993 record of 269); average gain per play (at 8.32 ypp, he leads Stafford’s record average of 7.99 from 2008); and touchdown responsibility (with 34, he is just behind his own record of 37 from last season). Also, Gurley (17 total TDs) is four touchdowns behind Garrison Hearst’s 1992 record of 21 in a season and Gurley (102 points) is 29 points behind Billy Bennett’s 2003 SEC record of 131 points in a season.
2. 39. Although Georgia and Nebraska have met just once in their history, Nebraska’s 45-6 win in the 1969 Sun Bowl owns a spot in Georgia’s record books. The Huskers’ 39-point margin of victory is the biggest for any Bulldogs opponent in a bowl game.
3. Halftime adjustments: Both teams appear to be adept at generating some positive momentum at halftime, as the third quarter has been the strongest for both Georgia and Nebraska. Georgia has outscored opponents by a whopping 134 points in the third quarter (169-35) and Nebraska has a 51-point advantage (122-71) in the third.
On Deck: This is the final game of the 2012-13 season for both teams. Georgia opens 2013 with a visit to Clemson on Aug. 31. Nebraska will host Wyoming that day.