So what, exactly, is at stake in Wednesday’s Gator Bowl? Not much if we’re being honest. Nebraska’s game against South Dakota State was vastly more important. Georgia needed to beat North Texas this season more than it needs to beat Nebraska to ring in the new year. How you think about Nebraska (or Georgia) headed into 2014 could change based on the result — that could be considered “at stake” — but it’s not a point of view I particularly encourage. I’ve never found much extrapolative value in bowl games.
But this doesn’t mean the game won’t be entertaining. In fact, the low stakes nature of most bowl games actually enhances the entertainment value. Down four with the ball on your own 10-yard line and 40 seconds left in the first half? Most coaches would just kneel on it and regroup at halftime, but in a bowl game you might as well give it a shot. Facing fourth-and-2 from the 48-yard line? Might as well go for it. It’s a bowl game. Maybe even run a flea-flicker or something.
Neither Georgia or Nebraska envisioned a New Year’s Day meeting in Jacksonville when the season started. That’s reality. But it is still football — the last of it for Husker and Bulldogs fans until August — and that’s still worthy of celebration.
Let’s dig in…
In the days after this match-up was announced, we took a quick look at Georgia-Nebraska using yards per play averages adjusted for strength of schedule. Here are those numbers again as they give you a clearer picture of how each team got to this point.
What we’re looking for here is how strength of schedule changes the yard per play averages, still the best measure of consistent success/failure in my mind. Most of them hold fairly true. For Nebraska there’s no category that goes from above average to below, or vice versa, but Nebraska’s defensive numbers do take a slight hit. All three areas — rush, pass and total defense — get slightly worse, none more so than rush defense. Nebraska simply didn’t play many accomplished rushing teams this year.
Flip it around and Georgia’s already impressive offensive averages all get a bump from playing an SEC schedule (with Clemson and Georgia Tech in there too). It’s not the change you’re looking for if you’re a Nebraska fan. Which of these teams might be undervalued just based on the raw stats (i.e. the numbers you’re most likely to see elsewhere)? The answer to that question is clearly Georgia.
And since we have those adjusted numbers, we’ll use those, rather than raw, numbers in the match-up graph we’ve been publishing all season.
This game marks the first time this season where Nebraska doesn’t have a statistical edge in at least one category over its opponents’ corresponding unit. That says something about Nebraska’s strength of schedule this season and something about how good of an 8-4 team Georgia actually is.
Statistically speaking, the Huskers’ run game was generally strong enough to trump most opponents’ run defenses, but, like with Michigan and Michigan State, that’s not the case here. Georgia is markedly better at stopping the run than Nebraska is at running the ball when adjusted for strength of schedule. The Huskers’ offensive line should be healthier than it was against either the Wolverines or Spartans, but Ameer Abdullah is going to have to earn each yard he gets in the Gator Bowl.
This disparity makes Nebraska’s passing game particularly interesting on Wednesday. If Georgia has a vulnerability, it’s in pass defense. The Bulldogs are allowing 7.3 yards per attempt (adjusted), which is below the national average. The problem here is that Nebraska’s pass offense (6.4 adjusted yards per play) is also its biggest weakness. That being said, the Bulldogs already average secondary is down one starter (safety Josh Harvey-Clemons) and these are valuable reps for Tommy Armstrong Jr. He struggled at times throwing the ball and I think the argument for a few more passing attempts than normal for him in this game is a compelling one — he could use them and it plays to Georgia’s biggest weakness.
Defensively, the Huskers could have their hands full. The biggest testament to the Bulldogs’ run scheme (and veteran offensive line) is that Georgia lost two potentially all-conference caliber running backs (Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley) for significant portions of the season but the rushing averaged didn’t fall too far. Gurley, of course, is back for this game and he’ll be a load for Nebraska’s improving front seven. Expect him to shoulder a little more of the load with starting quarterback Aaron Murray out.
Georgia’s passing numbers could possibly be discounted slightly due to Murray’s absence, but I wouldn’t dock them much. Quarterback Hutson Mason attempted 71 passes this year over three different games and is averaging more than nine yards per attempt. That’s good. Nebraska, which is just average in pass defense, has to find a way to limit long passing plays in this game. Georgia lost two game this season on somewhat flukey plays, a missed field goal against Clemson and a miracle pass play against Auburn. In the other two losses — Missouri and Vanderbilt — the Dawgs were held to just 6.4 and 4.1 yards per pass respectively.
HOW YOU’LL KNOW NEBRASKA’S IN GOOD SHAPE
Defensive end Avery Moss is out for this game but Randy Gregory’s still around and defensive tackle Maliek Collins has been making some noise in bowl practices in Jacksonville. Those guys, along with nickel back Ciante Evans, will be important because Nebraska needs to put some pressure on Mason in his second career start at quarterback. Georgia allowed 18 sacks this season and seven of them came in losses to Clemson, Missouri and Auburn. A blitz-heavy attack can open you up to long passing plays if the offense sees it coming– which Nebraska witnessed firsthand late in last season’s Capital One Bowl — but a lot of the Huskers’ success defending Georgia will likely depend on how quickly they force Mason to deliver the ball. If Nebraska’s consistently putting pressure on Georgia, the Huskers should feel pretty good early in this game.
WHEN TO WORRY
I’ve already written that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for Tommy Armstrong if Nebraska asks him to use his arm a little more in this game, but it may not, depending on Armstrong’s effectiveness, be Nebraska’s best bet for winning the game. For that to happen, Ameer Abdullah is going to have to find some room to run. Only two teams (Michigan, Iowa) have held him below 4 yards per carry this season, but Georgia will be one of his toughest tests yet. Abdullah ran pretty effectively against Michigan State thanks to a good blend of play calling from Tim Beck, so it’s not unthinkable for him to have a big day. If he isn’t, however, Nebraska might be in trouble.
For much of Georgia’s helmeted history, it wore silver lids (including this beauty), red jerseys and silver pants at home. That changed when Vince Dooley arrived in 1964. He never liked the way Georgia’s famous chant of “Go You Silver Britches” sounded like (or was changed to) “Go You Sons of…” so he ditched the silver pants and added the basic red helmet design you see today. In 1980, Dooley brought back the silver pants — nobody called them britches by then — and a modern classic was born. The Bulldogs switched their number font this season from a block number to a more rounded Bears-style look, a change that doesn’t do much for me, but this is still a great kit and, based on the uniform rotation from past years, Georgia will be the ones in red this time around. That’s a good thing all around as Nebraska’s white-over-red combo is, in my opinion, its strongest.