- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Six bowl assignments for Nebraska under coach Bo Pelini have delivered the following triumvirate of unfortunate circumstances:
• A December rematch from the regular season in the 2010 Holiday Bowl against Washington.
• Repeat trips to San Diego in 2009 and ’10 and to Capital One Bowl after the 2011 and ’12 seasons.
• And now, a second straight bowl game against Georgia, Jan. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla., for the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs beat Nebraska 45-31 to cap last season in Orlando.
All of it underscores the need for the Big Ten’s new emphasis, set for adaptation next season, on freshening the bowl landscape. The league will work with bowl officials to place its schools in a tiered set of games, attempting to avoid the matchups handed to the Huskers in 2010, 2012 and again this year.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, discussing the plan in June, said it was “counterproductive” for conference teams to repeatedly play at the same bowl site or in the same region.
This season's matchup marks the third straight postseason trip to Florida for Nebraska and its fourth in six years. In the 2014 selection system, the Huskers probably would have landed in Tempe, Ariz., for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against former Big 12 foe Kansas State -- decidedly more fresh than a rematch with UGA.
Still, Pelini was in no mood to complain after the announcement. In his first public comments since a defiant Nov. 29 press conference after the Huskers’ 38-17 loss to Iowa, Pelini played the role of gentleman and diplomat Sunday night on the Gator Bowl teleconference.
He showered Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett with praise, likely heartfelt as Pelini remembers Jacksonville as the site of Nebraska’s win over Clemson and fellow first-year coach Dabo Swinney in the 2008 season.
Pelini also talked of the Georgia rematch as a “good thing.” An odd description, though not nearly as strange as Mark Richt’s evaluation of the Georgia-Nebraska series, which includes the 2013 Capital One Bowl and the Huskers’ 1969 Sun Bowl victory.
“I think it’s become a good rivalry,” said Richt, the 13th-year Georgia coach.
Pelini compared the rematch to a regular-season college or NFL scenario, in which, obviously, annual meetings are commonplace.
But bowl games, outside of the elite tier, are built around the intrigue of their pairings.
“I want to play a good football team and a team that has a lot of tradition,” Pelini said. “I don’t know why anybody would complain.”
Nebraska fans may agree and show up in big numbers, as usual.
And if the turnout is low on New Year’s Day, don’t blame the Florida destination or premium Southeastern Conference opponent. The 8-4 Huskers are a tough sell, even to a faction of their fans.
Why do you think the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl took 7-5 Michigan, fifth place in the Big Ten Legends Division, over the Huskers?
Unranked and largely unnoticed outside of the state, save for a fiasco like the Iowa game, Nebraska needs Pelini to sharpen his marketing skills.
He did a nice job of that on Sunday night:
• Asked about the effect of injuries that decimated Nebraska’s offensive line and other areas in Big Ten play, Pelini said he didn’t want to offer excuses.
“But I think we had more than our share,” he said. “It was unusual.
“It hindered us in what we were able to do and how we were able to prepare. It’s part of the game. I was proud of our guys in how they fought through things. I thought they persevered, and I thought they showed a lot of character.”
For that reason, he said, he voted Nebraska at No. 25 on his ballot in the USA Today coaches’ poll, the only vote for the Huskers. He’s their coach so that’s fine.
• Pelini said he felt validated in his assessment of Michigan State after the Spartans beat Ohio State for Big Ten championship on Saturday. The Huskers lost to MSU 41-28 in Lincoln on Nov. 16. Nebraska outgained the Spartans and averaged nearly 6 yards per rush against the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense but could not overcome five turnovers.
“I like the way our football team can compete with anybody out there,” Pelini said. “I’ve said all along, Michigan State was a heckuva football team. I think it just shows we’re not far off. We’re right there, I think, with what we have coming back.”
Sorry, the turnovers are crippling. And they plagued Nebraska too often.
• The coach reiterated his confidence in the Huskers’ improving defense and overall direction.
“This defense has a chance to be really good,” Pelini said. “I knew that all along. I knew it was going to take some time. It doesn’t happen overnight. I think we’re seeing that evolution. The front seven has a chance to be really special, and you add those safeties in there who are coming back and the talent we have at the cornerback spot, and I like where it is.”
He said the Gator Bowl could serve as a launching point for 2014.
“If we stay the course, and we’re able to finish off our recruiting class and do what we need to do, there’s some really good things on the horizon for our program," Pelini said. I like where we’re headed.”
Verdict: Undecided. Let’s talk on New Year’s night.