“It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
- Charles Dickens, 1859
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Georgia shared a paralleled plight this year. When considering Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, if the Nebraska Huskers are French peasantry, the Georgia Bulldogs are surreptitiously playing the role of crestfallen London aristocrats – the Gator Bowl serving as Dickens’ muse for the impending installment (don’t hold your breath, he hasn’t been writing much lately). Their virtuosity remains, but an unavoidable revolution looms in the aftermath of Jan. 1, 2014 – where both will meet to form the epilogue of jointly comatose regular seasons.
What the University of Alabama is to modern day college football, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was to the 1990s. The apex of smash-mouth college football has been removed of a BCS matchup the past 12 years, they are no longer elite, they are no longer feared – and are now stumbling into the Gator Bowl against a familiar opponent. A calendar year prior, the Georgia Bulldogs waltzed through the ‘blackshirts’ pass defense to win the Capital One Bowl 45-31. This season, the two will convene at the same finish line, but their narratives couldn’t be any more disparate relative to their last encounter.
In a year chock-full of theatrical head coaching hullabaloo, Bo Pelini’s may have be the most provocative. In his fifth year as head coach, the media criticized Pelini for comments made 24 months prior; comments made in the aftermath of a stadium vacated before an improbable comeback that serves as the coach’s signature win since his arrival. The head coach was dragged through pejorative muckraking, a piñata beaten by fans, booster clubs, and alumni. Every journalist in each region of the country covered it until the beanstalk broke the clouds, suspended above Memorial Stadium where it remains.
Pelini responded as candidly as one would expect knowing his temperament, only exacerbating the emotions of those holding the stick. When the smoke dissipated, Pelini remained at the helm and has guided the Huskers to an 8-4 record, which is now a sadly common occurrence for ‘Big Red.’ With Lincoln’s faithful pleading for a bowl win – a holiday present lost in the mail each of the past three years – this game is brimming with implications for Pelini and his trajectory as head coach.
Georgia Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt has the luxury of minimal weight riding on this game (he’s now 13/13 on bowl appearances in his tenure at UGA), but in a season ripe with maladies, a win could pull his metaphorical countrymen out of the privileged sewer grates. The pre-destined national championship contender slipped to a 4-3 record in the month of October, crippled by injuries and tipped-pass touchdowns, which have barred their faces in a variety of forms. Starting quarterback Aaron Murray broke the SEC career passing touchdown record earlier this season, only to have his college career cut short by a torn ACL in Week 11. Standout running back Todd Gurley has experienced his fare-share of setbacks this year, but has regained his stride the past few games.
Ameer Abdullah and Todd Gurley personify the protagonists of the Gator Bowl’s figurative novel. Abdullah has run for 1,500 yards at a 6.2-yards-per-carry clip, Gurley has accounted for 903 yards at 6.3-yards-per-carry, in just nine games. Both will need to set the tone for their offense, but it may be those delivering them the ball that’s more intriguing.
Starting quarterback Taylor Martinez has been shelved since Week 7, and it remains to be seen whether Pelini will continue endorsing the two-quarterback system into bowl season. Senior Ron Kellogg III crafted one of the more remarkable highlights this season, but threw two interceptions en route to a lackadaisical 17-38 drubbing at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes in the season finale. The Georgia Bulldogs will be without nuanced quarterback Aaron Murray, last year’s Most Valuable Player who set a Capital One Bowl record with 427 passing yards and five touchdowns. Introduce Jun. backup, Huston Mason, who will be making his second career start. Mason will be faced with the task of outplaying the 19th best rushing attack in the country, and a defense that has built momentum nearly ever week since a demoralizing loss at the hands of UCLA. If inexperience is a crux, consider both QBs overcome by high water: the one who doesn’t drown wins.
Although both teams had higher aspirations in August, the Gator Bowl serves as a litmus test of what’s to come for two highly respected programs. The only recourse for damaged pride (or in our case, for enacted poverty) is to validate your season when it matters most. Nebraska and Georgia have the ability to alleviate the epigraph of this season, on Jan. 1, 2014; we’ll discover who’s been working harder on their penmanship.