Second- and third-tier college bowl games aren’t always celebrated. Think of them as a restaurant handing out coupons for a free entree to stir up business. Maybe it turns out to be a nice experience. Maybe it leads to free indigestion.
Maybe the head coach is just so happy that anybody is willing to smile, shake his hand and give him a free duffel bag after a 6-6 season, even if it’s clear that every one of his players would rather be back home with a pillow over his head than pretending to care about a game in a two-thirds-empty stadium in Memphis, Tenn., on New Year’s Eve (Liberty Bowl, 2010: Central Florida 10, Georgia 6. Still trying to find A.J. Green).
Georgia faces Nebraska in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. It’s not the postseason game anybody in Athens wanted or expected, not after coming so close to an SEC championship and an invitation to the BCS title game a year ago.
It’s certainly not where most assumed the Bulldogs would finish this season after winning early-season games over South Carolina and LSU, each ranked sixth at the time, setting themselves up nicely in the conference race with seemingly the toughest part of the schedule behind them. But injuries hit. The season went sideways. The rest of the year felt like the team was clinging to the side of a mountain.
The Gator Bowl is not a game with national ramifications. It’s more like an end-of-season team banquet. Some seniors will look like they want to be there. Others won’t. It will be obvious.
The real question is whether this game can provide a hint about what kind of team Georgia will have next season. In that sense, there are two areas to look at:
1) The defense, which did as much to submarine this season (finishing 79th in scoring defense and 68th in pass defense) as the injuries to skill players on offense (top two running backs, top three receivers and eventually the No. 1 quarterback). So consider this game another referendum on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, even if it’s likely he will be back.
2) Quarterback Hutson Mason, who, after engineering a comeback win over Georgia Tech, will make his second start since taking over for the injured Aaron Murray.
Without an improved defense and effective quarterback play, Georgia likely won’t improve on eight wins and a second-/third-tier bowl again next season.
But with both, along the return of running backs Todd Gurley (a legitimate Heisman candidate) and Keith Marshall and better health, they could be in the college football playoff mix.
Mason understands the importance of this game for his and the team’s future.
“This being only my second game, it’s important for me to play well,” he said Tuesday. “Just showing the guys that it’s my time now, my team now. It’s time for me to take over as far as that leadership role because guys do look to see how you play. That can have a big carryover effect into the next year. It can create momentum.”
Mason said bowl preparation has been different from the days leading to the Tech game, which was more of a blur.
“As the weeks go by, you get more used to being the starting quarterback,” he said. “Like this (bowl week) — it’s something I’ve never done before.”
A strong start would be something for Mason to build on. A loss could create doubt.
The Dogs followed that miserable Liberty Bowl performance with a blowout loss to Boise State in the Georgia Dome to open the 2011 season. When they lost again at South Carolina, confidence seemed at an all-time low under coach Mark Richt, until a turnaround.
Georgia ended last season with a Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska. Murray was impressive, throwing for 427 yards and five touchdowns. But the defense allowed four scoring drives and a missed field-goal attempt in Nebraska’s first seven possessions before stabilizing.
Both proved to be foreshadowing for this season.
Richt has made it a practice immediately following each bowl to thank his seniors and wish them well, then addressing the returning players about next season. It’s like his postgame passing of the torch.
“It’s the last game of the season for the 2013 team, but the game is being played on the first day of 2014,” he said. “So everybody can’t help but start thinking about the future. The game can create some momentum. It can also serve as motivation for things you want to get corrected and what you want to accomplish in the offseason. It’s the one game where I’ll talk about the future.”
Because when you think about it, 2013 is in the past.