ORLANDO – The players wore hats reading “CHAMPIONS” in all cap letters. The fact that “Capital One Bowl” — and not SEC or BCS — also was stitched on the caps in a much smaller script might deflate that declaration a bit, but it doesn’t take away from where Georgia may be headed.
Were the Bulldogs great in their final game of the 2012 season? Hardly. The defense, purported to be loaded with NFL talent, too often played sloppy and undisciplined. The quarterback, Aaron Murray, threw two interceptions in the team’s first three possessions. It is what happens sometimes in bowl games. The Dogs didn’t save their best for last. Their best came in the next-to-last game against Alabama.
But ultimately, what came out of Georgia’s 45-31 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl were signs that this program isn’t likely to take a step back next season.
There will be new players. There will be a different team personality. The schedule will be tougher. But the Bulldogs just finished a season that saw them go 12-2 and come within five yards of winning the SEC championship and going to the BCS title game. They rebounded from the crushing loss in the SEC championship game to win a significant bowl game. They showed resiliency by losing two starting wide receivers (Marlon Brown, Michael Bennett) during the season and a third in Tuesday’s game (Malcolm Mitchell). They endured several early season suspensions on defense and played without two defensive starters against Nebraska (John Jenkins, Abry Jones).
Jarvis Jones and several defensive starters now are expected to leave for the NFL. Maybe Murray comes back, but probably not. But Georgia is in a good place now, a player again on the national scene, and nobody could have seen that coming two years ago in Memphis when the team schlepped off the field a loser to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl, dragging a 6-7 record.
“The seniors started a legacy here,” freshman running back Todd Gurley said Tuesday. “They’re passing it down to us, and we’re just going to keep moving forward and winning each year. I know a lot of teams will have the goal of going to the national championship next year, but we really believe that. We’re going to bring in a great recruiting class and we’re going to get it done next year.”
As flawed as the Dogs looked against Nebraska, the result and the season projected well for the future.
It starts with the two freshmen in the backfield, Gurley and Keith Marshall. There were questions about the running game going into the season following the excommunication of Isaiah Crowell, but the two quickly eased concerns. In the final game of the season, Gurley rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown and Marshall made a difficult back-shoulder, 24-yard touchdown catch to give the Dogs a 38-31 lead early in the fourth quarter.
There’s the future.
It doesn’t matter if the starting quarterback is Murray or Hutson Mason. Georgia’s offense should function well, and the team should be in the middle of things again.
When asked about Marshall’s catch, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said, “We’ve kept things pretty simple for him and Todd because they’re freshmen. But that play there gives us a level of confidence next year that we can expand their package.”
Gurley, Bobo said, brought “a physicality to the offense that we needed. He did a great job leading us as a freshman. I told him after the game, ‘You had a great year, but now you have a chance to be great. So let’s go to work.’”
Marshall said he battled knee tendinitis before the season, affecting his workouts. “I lost some of my explosiveness,” he said. “But it’s finally feeling better. I’m looking forward to getting started on my workouts.”
And then this: “Honestly, I feel we’re the best team in the country. We can play with anybody. We were one play away this year.”
There were hiccups Tuesday. The first half took nearly two hours. The two teams combined for 47 points, five offensive touchdowns, three interceptions (including Nebraska’s pick-six against Murray), a field goal and a blocked punt for a safety. The Dogs trailed 24-23, then 31-23. But Murray, after starting 11 for 24, stopped scaring NFL scouts. He connected with Chris Conley for a 49-yard touchdown, then later scrambled away from pressure to connect with Marshall. Later, he found Conley again on a “jailbreak screen” against Nebraska’s blitz — nice call by Bobo – for an 87-yard score. Checkmate.
It ended well. There’s reason to believe it could end well next season, too.
By Jeff Schultz