Playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game against a ranked opponent with a storied history normally wouldn’t require any added motivation.
Both coming off painful - albeit entirely different - losses in huge games, the No. 6 Bulldogs and 23rd-ranked Cornhuskers will try to focus on the task at hand Tuesday in Orlando, Fla.
While Nebraska (10-3) endured an ugly loss in the Big Ten title game and missed out on a Rose Bowl berth, that pales in comparison to the pain Georgia (11-2) felt after barely losing the SEC championship game and a chance to play for the national title.
The Bulldogs came up five yards short in a 32-28 loss to Alabama on Dec. 1 when Chris Conley caught Aaron Murray’s deflected pass and was tackled at the 5 as time expired. The plan was for a touchdown or incompletion, leaving time for another play.
“We spent ourselves in a worthy cause,” coach Mark Richt said. “We, of course, wanted to play for a national championship. We knew we were just a few yards or a tipped ball, or however you want to say it away from winning it. It was heartbreaking, no doubt. We were highly hurt by it. … So you have to kind of get over the heartbreak of that.”
This game holds special meaning for Richt, who was born in Nebraska and grew up a Cornhuskers fan.
“I’ve known about Big Red for a long time. It’s been ingrained in my family,” he told Georgia’s official website. “My mom and dad were born in Nebraska, and all of their families are from there. All of my siblings except one were born in Nebraska, so I’ve got a lot of ties there.”
Although their ultimate goal is out of reach, the Bulldogs have plenty to play for despite being left out of a BCS bowl. They can reach 12 wins for only the third time in school history, and a victory could also put them in the season-ending top five.
That high a ranking appears unlikely for Nebraska, but beating a team that was within a few yards of playing for the national championship wouldn’t be a bad way to cap the school’s first 11-win season since 2001.
It would also help erase the memory of a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the regular-season finale. That ended a six-game win streak for the Cornhuskers, who allowed a school-record 539 rushing yards as the Badgers produced two 200-yard rushers in one game for the first time in school history.
“Obviously our championship game didn’t go the way we wanted to,” coach Bo Pelini said. “But it (this bowl) gives us an opportunity to play … and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
As disappointing as Nebraska’s performance was, it already has shown the ability to rebound from a blowout loss. A 63-38 defeat at Ohio State on Oct. 6 was followed by the six-game streak that had the Huskers on the verge of their first Rose Bowl appearance since 2002.
While Georgia’s running game isn’t as potent as Wisconsin’s, the Bulldogs are more balanced, rushing for 2,394 yards and passing for 3,564. Murray leads the nation in yards per passing attempt (7.8), throwing for 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The fourth-year junior tossed his 90th career TD pass in the loss to Alabama, passing Peyton Manning for second on the all-time SEC list.
Murray, though, will be up against a Nebraska defense that leads the nation against the pass, giving up 148.2 yards per game.
True freshman Todd Gurley ran for an SEC-best 1,260 yards with 16 touchdowns and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. Containing him could be a problem for Nebraska, which yielded 1,254 rushing yards in its three losses.
“They’re not the first team we’ve played and they’re not going to be the last that has a good running football team,” Pelini said. “We’ve played enough of them this year, physical running backs, physical groups up front. We won 10 games for a reason. It’s not easy winning 10. We’ve got a tremendous challenge ahead of us to try to get 11.”
Nebraska features a very effective ground game of its own, with backs Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah and quarterback Taylor Martinez - the school’s all-time leader in total offense - combining for 2,597 yards on the ground. The Cornhuskers rank eighth in the nation in rushing yards per game (254.5).
That trio could be in for a big performance against a Georgia defense that was shredded for 350 yards on 6.9 per carry against Alabama.
Anchoring Richt’s defense is outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, named SEC defensive player of the year following a stellar season that included 22 1/2 tackles for loss, 12 1/2 sacks and seven forced fumbles.
He’ll try to help Georgia improve to 4-1-1 in the Capital One Bowl in its first appearance since beating Michigan State 24-12 in 2009. Nebraska is in this bowl for the second consecutive season after a 30-13 loss to South Carolina.
These teams have only met once, a 45-6 victory for the Cornhuskers in the 1969 Sun Bowl.
Tom Osborne, who is retiring as Nebraska’s athletic director after this game, was in his first season as Cornhuskers offensive coordinator that year before going on to coach the team from 1973-1997.