ORLANDO – The old comedian Steve Allen once said, “I used to be a heavy gambler. But now I just make mental bets. That’s how I lost my mind.”
He easily could have been talking about bowl games. As inexact sciences go, they fit somewhere between the “wheel of fortune” and “pick a number between one and 10.”
A college team’s best players often are upperclassmen who already have one foot and an entire head out the door. Some get lost in the vacation atmosphere of bowl week. Some can’t transition back from holiday break. Others just look, play and act like they would rather not be there. It’s why we are left with results like: Central Florida 10, Georgia Holograms 6 in the Liberty Bowl.
For Georgia’s sake, this next bowl needs to be different.
This isn’t some grand declaration that the Bulldogs’ program will be defined by whether or not they defeat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. The turnaround coach Mark Richt has made in the last two seasons should be evidence enough that things are going in the right direction. But should Georgia lose to Nebraska after falling only five yards short of an SEC championship and a BCS title berth, it would take some luster off the season.
Think about last year. Losing to No. 1 ranked LSU in the SEC title game was expected, even after a 10-game winning streak. But losing to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl (blowing a 16-0 halftime and falling 33-30 in overtime) wasn’t so palatable.
Losing to Alabama 32-28 in the SEC title game four weeks ago was crushing for those in and around the program. But in many respects, the Bulldogs might have gained more respect in the defeat than in any victory this season. Losing on Tuesday to Nebraska – which was blown out by Wisconsin 70-31 in the Big Ten championship game and fell to 16th in the BCS rankings — would be a downer Richt would rather avoid.
Think of ending a really nice meal with Aunt Edna’s jello mold.
For a program that preaches, “Finish the drill,” the failure of just finishing the season would become an increasing concern.
Richt was 7-2 in bowl games before the last two losses. When the team started bowl practices, he told players to have fun when the schedule allowed for it. But practice meant practice and meeting meant meeting. For the most part, he liked what he saw.
“I think we did a good job of that,” he said. “Was it good enough? We’ll find out.”
And then later: “I just can’t imagine them not playing with great effort.”
I’ve seldom seen a talented team look worse than the Dogs did at the Liberty Bowl. But after a 6-6 season, it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Sleepwalking in Orlando after going 11-2 and elevating the team’s fan base would be alarming. It also could leave a hangover returning players would have to deal with.
“We’ve got another opportunity to finish on a high note,” Richt said. “On a personal level, there’s always a scene in the locker room after the game where I’m going to be talking to the team for the very last time. I’ll address the seniors for the last time. You want that last memory to be a good one. That’s a motivating factor for me and I think it probably is for those seniors or anybody else who think this might be their last ball game.”
Quarterback Aaron Murray, who could be playing in his final game if he declares himself eligible for the NFL draft, maintains he and teammates are motivated. He pointed to his own inability to win a bowl game (0-2) and the possibility of the Dogs finishing among the top five ranked teams. “We have a chance to finish out on top, which is something we haven’t done in a couple of seasons,” he said.
The season deserves more than a season-ending face plant.
By Jeff Schultz
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