Perhaps they should rename this game the Band-Aid Bowl.
Nebraska and Georgia enter today’s Gator Bowl — a rematch of last year’s Capital One Bowl, won 45-31 by Georgia — mere shells of the teams that began the season with high expectations.
Nebraska (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) was picked to win the Big Ten’s Legends Division, but finished tied for second behind champion Michigan State, and lost its head-to-head meeting with the team it tied in the standings, Iowa.
Georgia (8-4, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) was a preseason top five team, but lost back-to-back games to Missouri and Vanderbilt in October.
Both teams have lost their starting senior quarterback — Taylor Martinez (foot) for Nebraska, and Aaron Murray (ACL) for Georgia.
Running back Keith Marshall and wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley also suffered season-ending ACL injuries for Georgia, as did Nebraska All-American offensive guard Spencer Long.
That was just the beginning of Nebraska’s problems with offensive line injuries. Starters Jeremiah Sirles, Jake Cotton and Cole Pensick all suffered knee sprains that sidelined them at one point, and backup guard Mike Moudy, after replacing Long, was out with an injured shoulder.
Backup quarterback Tommy Armstrong, receivers Jamal Turner and Alonzo Moore, defensive tackle Thad Randle and tight end Jake Long are other key players who’ve missed time — some more than others — with various injuries for Nebraska.
Same goes for Georgia wide receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, running back Todd Gurley and backup tight end Jay Rome.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said that at one point, his team had at least a half-dozen players with MCL injuries.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around that in my whole coaching career,” he said. “We had some bad luck in that area. It really hit us hard in a couple spots.
“It’s part of the game, but I think we had more than our share. It was just unusual.”
Now, which team heals the most and regroups from a disappointing season to make a statement on New Year’s Day?
The fact this is a bowl game rematch takes a little luster off the matchup, although Pelini said the familiarity of the teams should make it more attractive.
All Pelini wanted was a good football team with tradition, and there’s no argument Georgia provides that, healthy or not.
“Hopefully both teams will be getting some guys back a little closer to being healthy and 100 percent,” Pelini said. “It should be a heck of a game, and that’s what fans pay to come see.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
• RB Ameer Abdullah has been Nebraska’s most consistent and most valuable player on an offense that entered the season with high expectations but was beset by injuries. Abdullah battled through an ankle sprain en route to a Big Ten Conference-best 1,568 rushing yards. It’s not a stretch to say that without Abdullah, Nebraska doesn’t make a bowl game, given his big plays in close victories over Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.
• Nebraska DE Randy Gregory is listed at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, although it’s more likely Gregory is closer to 240 pounds. Despite his slight frame, the transfer was Nebraska’s top newcomer on defense, collecting 9.5 sacks on the season, part of his 17 tackles for loss. Coaches like to move around the versatile Gregory, at times standing him up as an outside linebacker. Gregory came from junior college, but is a sophomore with two remaining years of eligibility.
• Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa is among the most under rated receivers in the Big Ten Conference. The senior workhorse surprisingly didn’t earn any postseason conference recognition despite his 10 touchdown receptions. He’s a physical receiver who cherishes blocking as much as he does catching passes.
• Georgia QB Hutson Mason will make his second career start in the Gator Bowl. Mason helped rally Georgia to an overtime win over Georgia Tech in his first career start, completing 22 of 39 passes for 299 yards with two TDs and an interception. The fourth-year junior is the heir apparent to senior QB Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury against Kentucky. How Mason responds to the pressure of playing in a bowl game remains to be seen.
• Georgia RB Todd Gurley is closing in on his second straight 1,000-yard season. The 6-foot-1, 232-pound sophomore has rushed for 903 yards and 10 TDs despite missing three games with an ankle injury. Gurley has also shown his versatility catching passes out of the backfield this season with 344 yards receiving on 30 catches and five receiving TDs. Gurley will face a test against a Nebraska defense that is allowing just 3.9 yards per carry this season.
• Georgia TE Arthur Lynch has put together a strong senior season for the Bulldogs with 24 catches for 390 yards. Lynch also is tied with Todd Gurley and Rantavious Wooten for the team high in TD catches with five. Expect starting QB Hutson Mason to look to Lynch as a safety valve over the middle early and often during the Gator Bowl.
• Georgia SS Josh Harvey-Clemons is starting to put things together after an inconsistent start to his sophomore season. Harvey-Clemons finished the season third on the Bulldogs in tackles with 66, with a team-high three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and one interception. At 6-foot-5, 212 pounds, Harvey-Clemons has the combination of size and quickness to make plays in the secondary. Look for Harvey-Clemons to shadow Nebraska dual-threat QB Ron Kellogg III.
Nebraska is 24-25 in bowl games and has lost three straight bowl games, including last year’s 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. This is the first time Nebraska has faced the same opponent in a bowl in back-to-back years since facing Florida State in the Orange Bowl following the 1992 and 1993 seasons.
Georgia is 27-18-3 in bowl games. The Bulldogs are appearing in their 17th straight bowl game and are 8-4 in bowls under current coach Mark Richt. Georgia will be playing in the Gator Bowl for the first time since 1989, the final game for legendary coach Vince Dooley. In the 1989 Gator Bowl, Georgia beat Michigan State 34-27.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“I want to play a good football team, and a team that has a lot of tradition. I don’t know why anybody would complain. What you’re looking for are good matchups.” — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, on his team’s rematch with a Georgia team the Huskers played in last season’s Capital One Bowl.