The challenge for Bo Pelini and his coaches between now and Jan. 1 is to make sure the players have moved on emotionally.
“If we have a hangover,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said, “it’s going to get ugly.”
The Huskers (10-3) have begun preparing in earnest for the Bulldogs (11-2) after going through short workouts last week. The players will be dismissed for Christmas today. They’ll return to Lincoln next Wednesday and travel that afternoon to Orlando, Fla.
“I guess we treat this like the Rose Bowl game that we should have gone to, and I’m still frustrated about that,” quarterback Taylor Martinez said.
Beck described himself and the rest of the team as “shell-shocked” in the days following the 70-31 beating by the Badgers. Yet the mood was light after Tuesday’s practice. Players yukked it up with each other as they walked off the field, and defensive end Eric Martin clowned around with Martinez while the quarterback was speaking with reporters.
Martinez said he doesn’t think the meltdown against Wisconsin will carry over to the bowl.
Running back Ameer Abdullah lamented the lost opportunity.
“It hurt,” he said. “We worked so hard, with all the comeback victories, but you have to have short-term memory. The season isn’t over. We can’t drag that same attitude into the bowl game. We have to get our spirits back up and practice hard.”
Georgia is the highest-ranked bowl opponent since the Huskers took on top-ranked Miami in the Rose Bowl game that decided the 2001 national championship. The Huskers are 10-point underdogs.
The Bulldogs have a three-year starter in quarterback Aaron Murray, who ranks second nationally in pass efficiency, and the powerful freshman running-back combination of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Gurley leads all freshman rushers with 1,260 yards, and the 5-11, 216-pound Marshall has run for 723 yards.
Georgia allowed 10 or fewer points in five games and features the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year in outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who leads the Bulldogs with 12.5 sacks despite missing two games.
Asked what scares him about Georgia’s defense, Martinez said, “Nothing. They’re like any other Big Ten defense. Big Ten defenses are the best in the country, and we’re going up against a good Georgia defense. We have to look at it like that.”
Beck said the Bulldogs’ defense is “too big and too athletic” to compare with any in the Big Ten.
“They’re an Oklahoma, a Texas, a South Carolina,” Beck said. “They do a lot of different things. They run around and make plays all over the place.”
Georgia narrowly missed a chance to play for the national championship, losing 32-28 to Alabama in the SEC title game.
The Huskers, however, aren’t buying into the hype of the SEC, which has won six straight national titles.
“It doesn’t matter what conference they come from,” Abdullah said. “There are a lot of good teams around the country. It’s not just because they come from the SEC that they hold some special powers.”
It’s the second straight season Nebraska has played in the Capital One against an SEC team. Last January the Huskers lost 30-13 to South Carolina after a second-half implosion.
Nebraska is playing for its first 11-win season since 2001 and the 13th in program history. The Huskers have never lost fewer than four games under Pelini, who’s in his fifth season. A win over the Bulldogs would create a positive vibe for Nebraska as it goes into next season. Significant starting experience will return at eight positions on offense and at five on defense.
“11-3 sounds a heck of a lot better than 10-4,” Abdullah said.
Beck said the bowl can cushion the blow of the Wisconsin debacle. He said the players and coaches prepared for Badgers as well as they did for any opponent.
“Why did it turn out that way? It wasn’t our night,” Beck said. “As bad as it stings and as bad as I know they’re not that much better than we are, points-wise, it’s over. You’ve got to move on. There are a lot of great things these guys have done in this program, a lot of great things happened this year, and one game isn’t going to define it for me and for them.”