GAME NOTES: For the second straight year the Nebraska Cornhuskers and 23rd- ranked Georgia Bulldogs will face each other in a bowl game, as they are set to square off in the Gator Bowl at EverBank Field.
These teams faced each other in last season's Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, as then No. 5 Georgia claimed a 45-31 victory over the 23rd-ranked Cornhuskers. The Bulldogs outscored Nebraska 22-7 in the second half of that matchup to pull away and earn the victory.
"This is another chance to play them," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. "We've got a lot of video, obviously, from this season and also from a year ago. 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."
Nebraska posted an unflattering 8-4 overall record and ended its regular season with a 38-17 home loss to Iowa, which prompted speculation about coach Bo Pelini's job security, although he is under contract through 2017. However, athletic director Shawn Eichorst quelled that speculation with a verbal endorsement of the sixth-year coach following that ugly loss to the Hawkeyes.
The Cornhuskers won at least nine games in each of Pelini's first five seasons but have not won a conference title since 1999. Nebraska is playing in a New Year's Day bowl game for the third straight year, but is hoping to snap a three-game bowl losing streak after falling to the Bulldogs last year.
Only Alabama (60) and Texas (51) have competed in more bowl games than these two storied programs, as Nebraska is playing in its 50th bowl game while the Bulldogs are playing in No. 49.
Georgia is playing in a bowl game for a school-record 17th consecutive season. The Bulldogs had seven games this season decided by five points or less, and went 4-3 in those contests. Georgia won four of its final five games, including a double-overtime victory at rival Georgia Tech in the annual Governor's Cup Trophy game.
The top priority for the UGA defense will be trying to stop talented Huskers I-back Ameer Abdullah, the nation's eighth-leading rusher with an average of 130.7 yards per game. The junior has been able to carry the load in the absence of dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, but was lost for the 2013 season after playing in only four games due to hip and foot injuries.
Tommy Armstrong, Jr. has played in eight games (seven starts), and is completing only 53 percent of his passes while averaging just 100.4 passing yards per tilt. He has thrown seven touchdowns and seven interceptions and, unlike Martinez, is not much of a threat with his legs. Armstrong sat out the regular-season finale against Iowa with an ankle injury, but is probable for the Gator Bowl. Backup Ron Kellogg III was intercepted on NU's first two possessions against the Hawkeyes, and went on to throw for just 199 yards on 19-of-37 accuracy.
Defensively, the Huskers are yielding an average of 367 yards and 25.3 points. Corey Cooper and David Santos share the team lead with 81 tackles. Randy Gregory (61 tackles) has collected a team-high 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste have each recorded four interceptions. The NU defense was handed a short field on several occasions against Iowa thanks to three turnovers by the offense and shoddy special teams coverage. In fact, seven of the Hawkeyes' 15 drives started in Huskers' territory. Michael Rose turned in a huge day in a losing effort as he racked up 16 tackles, including four for loss.
Georgia enters the Gator Bowl averaging 38.2 ppg, which is on pace to top the school-record of 37.8 ppg, set just last year. However, much of that production came with Aaron Murray at quarterback, but the senior leader suffered a season-ending injury against Kentucky in the second-to-last regular season game. Still, all hope is not lost for the Bulldogs, as junior backup Hutson Mason proved in the last game against Georgia Tech. Mason completed 22- of-36 passes for 299 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in his first career start, leading UGA back from a 20-point deficit to win in double- overtime.
Still, the focal point of the Bulldogs offense will undoubtedly be sophomore running back Todd Gurley, who needs 97 yards to join Herschel Walker and Knowshon Moreno as the only tailbacks in school history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. Gurley has maintained that pace despite missing three and a half games due to an ankle injury suffered in the win over then sixth- ranked LSU. The Nebraska defense will remember Gurley well, as he rushed for 125 yards and a score in last year's Capital One Bowl.
"I think he's one of the best backs in America," coach Richt said of Gurley. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. I think most people that have seen him play would say that, as well."
The Bulldogs defense boasts the top linebacking corps in the SEC, and perhaps the country in juniors Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera. That duo ranks No. 1 and 2 in the SEC in tackles this season, as Wilson leads the way with 128 (10.7 per game) followed by Herrera with 107 stops (8.9 per game). Only two players have ever led the SEC in tackles in school history. Wilson has shown a penchant for raising his play in big games, having led the team in tackles eight times this season, including a career-high 18 against second-ranked Auburn. Herrera added 12 tackles in that game and also had a dozen against No. 8 South Carolina. Junior cornerback Damian Swann (56 tackles) has broken up a team-high eight passes this year, and he played an integral role in last season's bowl win over the Huskers with two interceptions for 46 yards.
Both of these teams have been plagued by injuries at the quarterback position this season, and both feature workhorse-type running backs who are capable of carrying the load. If this game comes down to turnovers, it is worth noting that both rank at the bottom of their respective conferences in turnover margin.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Nebraska 34, Georgia 30