Bulldogs playing a different song in Jacksonville

semerson@macon.comDecember 27, 2013 

Georgia receiver Chris Conley plays the piano in the lobby before addressing the media regarding on Thursday, as the team arrived in Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl.


JACKSONVILLE - A second-floor walk-up turned into a Georgia football game room on Thursday evening. Receiver Rantavious Wooten led a round of billiards. Young children of coaches and staff members played a version of bouncy ball. Receiver Chris Conley took a turn at the piano.

Assistant coach Scott Lakatos wandered over and surveyed the scene, and looked around in confusion.

"I'm trying to figure out where I'm supposed to be," Lakatos said, before deciding to wander back down the hallway leading to a team dining room.

The structured environment of a multi-million dollar football program had temporarily broken down into some fun chaos. Later in the evening the Bulldogs conducted their first bowl practice, under the lights at Jacksonville University. But a bowl game is generally a more relaxing atmosphere, and it's definitely more relaxing than other Georgia trips to this city.

When it comes to what appears to be a dud of a bowl - a rematch with Nebraska in a city Georgia knows well - Bulldog players haven't really tried to sell the rematch idea. No one pretends they came out of last year's game with any antipathy for Nebraska or desire for a rematch.

But they do dispute the "been there, done that" part of Jacksonville. Maybe that's the case for fans, but for players, coaches and most team staffers, that weekend in late October/early November is always a business trip.

"We always fly in, play the game, fly out," Conley said. "Most people ask us: Hey, what are you doing after the game? Well, we're in Athens (by that night). This is our first time to get to explore the floor, and check it out. The only guys who have really seen it are guys who have redshirted or haven't (dressed) for the game. So this'll be an interesting experience."

The Gator Bowl has a series of team events planned for the afternoons and evenings, after practices. There's also a lot of time when players will be on their own and will get to sample the city.

"Just going to be able to see the city a little bit. Eat at a couple places. That'll be nice," senior defensive end Smith said.

Head coach Mark Richt was asked if, having been all these times to the "Florida-Georgia" game he had gotten to see much of Jacksonville.

"First of all it's Georgia-Florida," Richt said, smiling. "We gotta get that right. But yeah, I've never been here longer than really a 24-hour period, a 48-hour period at the most."

It remains to be seen whether fans will respond. Georgia athtletics director Greg McGarity said that as of about a week ago his school had sold about half of its 15,000-ticket allotment. Nebraska had only sold about 3,200 tickets, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Conley said he's heard two "resounding" opinions from fans.

"Some have been: 'You're playing them again?!' Well yes, we're playing them again, come support us," Conley said. "The other people have been: Georgia-Florida Part II. So they have no problem getting up for us. They'll be down here to support."

As for the actual game, Georgia players said there was a dual purpose. That purposed depended on whether they were going to be around another year.

Tight end Arthur Lynch said he and his fellow seniors saw it as a chance to play one more game, and to go out a winner.

"I think we're just kind of excited to get another opportunity not just to play Nebraska again, but to play a top-25 caliber team," Lynch said. "It's a great way to end the season if we win it. It's another great way to show that the season may not have gone the way people wanted it to. There's still a lot of things we've accomplished and continue to improve each game."

"We're just thankful to be able to play in a bowl game," said Smith, another senior. "Nebraska's got a good team, so we know it's going to be a great game. We're excited about it. We're just gonna go out and practice, try to get better, finish on a strong note."

Conley, a junior, saw it as not only a chance to end the season on an up note, but to use it as a springboard to next season. And he pointed specifically at quarterback Hutson Mason, who will be making the second start of his career.

"Every bowl is an opportunity to prepare you for the spring. Really when you look at it the year goes by so fast, the spring is the preseason. You want to go into the offseason with an air of confidence. You want to go into the offseason knowing what you need to work on to get better," Conley said. "We've worked on so many things.

"Hutson has gotten better at so many things. It's going to be interesting to see the things he can improve on this offseason, and the things he already has. I think there's gonna be improvement from his last game to this one. He's gonna play extremely well, so we're excited to see that. It's gonna be a nice barometer to see how our offense fares against a defense we've played before."

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