SEC: Nebraska Cornhuskers

For all those people fretting that a playoff in college football would somehow water down the regular season, I offer up the blockbuster weekend of Sept. 3. 2016.

Yes, it’s still a couple of years away and we’re supposed to be focusing on what’s right in front of us. But, geez, that Saturday to open the 2016 season could very well provide the most attractive lineup of nonconference games on one day that we’ve ever seen.

For that, at least in large part, we all have the College Football Playoff to thank.

Some of the matchups were already set or in the process of being set. But the real impetus in beefing up all these nonconference schedules was that a playoff was coming.

And, now, with a selection committee holding the keys to those coveted four playoff spots, we’re going to be in store for some terrific nonconference showdowns in the regular season for years to come. Simply, teams that don’t play and win those types of games are going to be on the outside looking in, which makes the regular season as important as ever.

My only knock on that weekend to kick off the 2016 season is that there are too many good games. I want to watch them all.

We’ve all been clamoring for an Alabama-USCmatchup. Well, we’re finally going to get it in Arlington, Texas to open that season.

And if you like your football Southern style, Clemson at Auburn has a nice ring to it. Lewis Grizzard, the late Southern humorist, once said that Clemson was Auburn with a lake. In a lot of ways, they’re virtual clones of each other right down to their break-neck style of offense. Even more enticing, this is a home-and-home series with Auburn traveling to Clemson the next year.

There won’t be a more unique game that weekend than LSU facing Wisconsin in historic Lambeau Field. Perhaps we’ll get to see Les Miles perform the “Lambeau Leap” if the Tigers win.

Have the remote control ready because we also get UCLA at Texas A&M, Notre Dame at Texas and BYU Cougars at Arizona (in Glendale, Ariz.).

That’s just the first weekend, too.

A week later, Tennessee and Virginia Tech will “trade paint” at Bristol Motor Speedway. And two weeks later, Ohio State travels to Oklahoma and Oregon visits Nebraska.

So much for opening the college football season with a tune-up … or two.
Texas and Texas A&M might not be playing one another anytime soon.

But other schools around the league are interested in the prospects of rekindling rivalries that were destroyed by two rounds of conference realignment.

While the Longhorns and Aggies remain at odds, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told ESPN.com this week he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to get Texas A&M on the Red Raiders’ schedule down the line again. Hocutt said there has been interest from Texas A&M’s side, as well.

“Hopefully that’s a series that at some point in time that could start again,” Hocutt said. “Is that a game that won’t happen again? No. We’ve had discussions about it. Hopefully we can reengage that in the coming years.”

Oklahoma and Nebraska already have an agreement in place to play a home-and-home in 2021-22. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has reportedly said he thinks his school will play Kansas again someday.

And West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who has already added Penn State and Virginia Tech to future schedules, told ESPN.com he's hopeful he'll be able to revive the “Backyard Brawl” with Pitt at some point, as well.

“At some point we’ll get Pitt back on the schedule,” Luck said. “What I’m trying to do with our nonconference games is stay as regional as possible and rekindle some of our historical rivalries. Penn State is back on the schedule. Virginia Tech is back on the schedule. That game meant a lot to southern West Virginians. The Pitt game meant a lot to northern West Virginians. We’ve continued to play Pitt in many of the sports.

“We’ve both gone through transitions, so it’s tough schedule-wise for both of us. But I think at some point we’ll get Pitt back on the schedule. I see [Pitt athletic director] Steve Pederson every now and then at various conventions. And we’ve had some discussions about that. We just haven’t been able to really eyeball the proper time to get it going again.”
One of the last memories Braylon Heard had of his time at Nebraska was a 9-yard touchdown run in the 2012 Big Ten championship game. He took the handoff, sprinted to the opposite side of the field and left the defense in the dust as he waltzed into the end zone.

It was a play that likely won’t register with Cornhuskers fans as their team trailed Wisconsin 63-17 at the time, but it’s a play that will stay with Heard because not only did he score, but it also turned out to be one of his final carries in a Nebraska uniform.

[+] EnlargeBraylon Heard
AP Photo/Dave WeaverFormer Nebraska running back Braylon Heard is hoping for a fresh start -- and a starting spot -- at Kentucky.
Heard rushed for 462 yards and four touchdowns during his first two seasons in Lincoln. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry as a sophomore, but he found himself stuck behind Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah on the depth chart. He believed it was in his best interest to transfer, as he needed a fresh start.

At the same time Heard was trying to rejuvenate his career, first-year head coach Mark Stoops was looking to rejuvenate a Kentucky football program that had just two conference victories in 2011. It was the perfect match.

“At Kentucky, I just saw a great opportunity, and it was closer to home,” Heard said.

The Youngstown, Ohio, native played his high school ball at Cardinal Mooney, the same school that Stoops and fellow Kentucky assistant coach Vince Marrow attended back in the day. At Kentucky, he's close enough to home that his mother can drive to games instead of flying.

The only downside to the transfer was that Heard had to sit out a full season before he could suit up in a game for the Wildcats.

“It wasn't too bad because I knew the next year I would be out there with the guys,” he said. “Any guy sitting out is a little frustrated watching the games and everything, but you've got to keep a level head and know that your time will come next year.”

Heard did keep a level head. He was still able to practice with the team. He took reps with the scout team and worked hard on improving his own game. He impressed the coaches with his progression and showed that he could be a big-time back once he became eligible.

“He took as much advantage of a redshirt year as anybody I've seen,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. “He was a little stiff in his hips and in his movements, and he went to work and did a great job with our strength and conditioning guys, became more flexible and looks a whole lot different than he did when he was at Nebraska.”

Heard is no longer just a speed back. He can run it inside just as well as he can run it outside. He’s improved his pass-catching abilities and his pass protection, and he’s a guy the coaches believe can do everything they’re going to ask their running backs to do.

As the team looks to replace starter Raymond Sanders this spring, Heard is very much in the mix to win the job once the season rolls around.

“He knows it's real now,” Brown said. “He knows that he's competing for a starting job. He knows that what he does every day at practice will determine how many times he carries the ball. There's maybe a little more at stake.”

The other competitors include JoJo Kemp, the team’s leading rusher from last fall; Mikel Horton, a power back who arrived in January; and Josh Clemons, who is finally healthy after missing the past two seasons because of injury.

“They're great guys,” Heard said. “We're all working hard as a group. There are a lot of characters in the room, and I've really enjoyed competing with those guys.”

The Kentucky spring game is Saturday, and ultimately, Heard wants to win the job. It’s why he transferred from Nebraska in the first place. He doesn’t want to get buried on the depth chart again. But whether he’s starting or next in line, he still just wants to do his part to help the team win.

“[My goal is] to be successful and just help out the team as much as I can,” he said. “If we're winning, then I'm happy.”
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:

It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.

Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.

Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.

Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.

What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.

What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.

To watch the trophy presentation of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, click here.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.
New Year’s Day is near, along with the end to long layoffs for No. 22 Georgia and Nebraska.

Mitch Sherman and David Ching come together for a final discussion on the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, set for Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2:

How motivated is Georgia to win this game and why?

Ching: That's the big question entering this game, isn't it? It doesn't feel like either fan base is particularly jazzed about this matchup since these teams just played in a bowl a year ago. It wouldn't be a surprise if the teams deal with the same problem. Georgia seems like the more talented team here, but the coaches have to convince the Bulldogs that this is a game worth playing their best.

Sherman: I don’t expect motivation to be a problem for Nebraska. The Huskers don’t want their streak of nine-win seasons -- a point of much discussion and pride -- to end. A victory over an SEC opponent would serve as boost for Bo Pelini’s program and the Big Ten. Moreover, it has been a long, trying season in Lincoln; playing well in the Gator Bowl could change the narrative and allow the Huskers and their fans to focus on positives.

What do you expect out of the quarterback position?

Ching: Hutson Mason has the benefit of already making one start in a huge game. He started slowly against Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, but helped the Bulldogs rally for a double-overtime win. Nebraska has a talented secondary that will test him, but I expect Mason to perform well. He has waited his turn behind Aaron Murray, but is well prepared to become a solid performer as a senior in 2014.

Sherman: We saw at the Big House in November that Tommy Armstrong has a knack for playing well under the spotlight. And for a redshirt freshman with seven starts under his belt, New Year’s Day is big. Armstrong is motivated. His linemen are healthier than at any point since late October. His receivers are healed up, and while Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa won’t surprise Georgia with their athleticism after last year, look for the Huskers to make plays in the passing game.

Who holds the edge when Nebraska has the football?

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia tailback Todd Gurley has been effective since returning for injury, rushing for six touchdowns in his last five games.
Ching: Probably Nebraska. I know the Huskers have struggled on offense for most of the season without Taylor Martinez, but Georgia's defense has only dominated against the least of its competition this season. I expect Nebraska to produce decent yardage and point totals against the Bulldogs, considering how half of their opponents this season generated at least 400 yards of offense and eight scored at least 30 points.

Sherman: If we’re answering based off the second half of the season, it’s Georgia, despite its defensive injuries and propensity to allow chunks of yardage. Offensively, Nebraska simply hit a wall after mid-October, with the exception of the Michigan State game. The Huskers didn’t once scored 30 points after all-conference guard Spencer Long went down on Oct. 12 at Purdue. Injuries are the wild card, though. Long remains out, but most of the others who missed time are back. If Nebraska creates some momentum early, it could top 400 yards for the first time in five games.

Who holds the edge when UGA has the football?

Ching: Georgia. The Huskers haven't defended the run particularly well -- they're 60th nationally at 161.2 yards per game -- and that doesn't bode well for stopping Todd Gurley after he's had a month to allow his injured ankle to heal. Nebraska's defense has been fairly average in every way, so even with someone other than Murray at the helm, I expect Georgia's high-scoring offense to keep rolling in Jacksonville.

Sherman: Season-long statistics don’t tell the whole story of this Nebraska defense. The Blackshirts are much improved from September, when they were trampled in the opening quarter by an FCS-level foe. Since Nov. 1, the Huskers rank among the top 20 defensive units nationally. They’re especially strong against the pass. And with time to prepare, Pelini will devise a scheme to test Mason. As for Gurley, well, he could pose a problem. The Huskers will miss defensive end Avery Moss. And Big Ten results so far this bowl season don’t bode well for Nebraska.
Aaron Murray and Taylor Martinez, the shelved senior quarterbacks at Georgia and Nebraska, started 95 college games.

They won 67.4 percent.

Bet you thought that rate was higher.

Seems we’ve watched these two operate forever. In the past four years, Murray and Martinez meant something important to college football. They tormented defensive coordinators and served as the poster boys for a pair of proud programs, trying -- desperately close at times -- to break through.

It’s not going to happen in their time.

Despite 64 victories between them (35 for Murray, 29 for Martinez), neither won a conference title. At Georgia and Nebraska, a conference title, at minimum, is the standard of success.

Yet as Murray and Martinez depart the college game in sadly anticlimactic fashion as the Bulldogs (8-4) and Huskers (8-4) meet for a New Year’s Day rematch in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, they leave a record of greatness.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Josh Wolfe/Icon SMITaylor Martinez's final season didn't go as planned, but he'll be remembered in Lincoln.
Murray’s senior season was nearly doomed from the start. Injuries to running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, several top receivers and playmakers on defense contributed heavily to four Georgia losses.

The QB persevered until Nov. 23, when he suffered an ACL tear in a 59-17 victory over Kentucky. Murray played through the injury for one series but couldn't fight the pain any further.

In similar fashion, Martinez battled for two weeks through a foot injury, suffered in the Huskers’ season opener.

He led the Huskers to a 21-3 edge over UCLA in the second quarter on Sept 14, but any thoughts of a storybook ending to his career crashed to a halt in the second half. The Bruins scored 38 consecutive points. Martinez clearly wasn’t himself, unable use his usually dangerous feet to stem momentum.

A one-game comeback fell flat at Minnesota in October. Martinez was finished. He lost his final two starts and an opportunity to join Colin Kaepernick as the only players in FBS history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 3,000. He finished with 7,258 passing yards and 2,975 rushing yards.

He lost his chance to win a conference title, a hope so promising back in 2010, when Martinez led Nebraska to a 17-point lead over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game as a freshman.

Martinez never broke through.

“It’s been hard,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “This whole season’s been hard on him. It’s not the way you want to see him go out.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt said the same thing about Murray. Richt visited a hospitalized Murray after he underwent surgery on the damaged knee. Richt said he wanted to feel sorry for his quarterback, but Murray wouldn’t let him.

His positivity is relentless. And that’s part of Murray’s legacy, alongside the 13,166 passing yards and 121 touchdown passes.

No Southeastern Conference quarterback before Murray threw for 3,000 yards in three seasons. Murray did it four times. He broke Danny Wuerffel’s SEC record for touchdown passes and Tim Tebow’s record for total yardage.

But, like Martinez, his teams never broke through.

Murray’s best chance fell 5 yards short last year against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He targeted Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone, a shot within reach to win an SEC title as the clock ticked away. Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley deflected the pass to Georgia receiver Chris Conley. Conley slid to the turf, surrounded by defenders. Time expired on Murray’s best opportunity.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia's Aaron Murray
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAaron Murray's place in Georgia and SEC football history is secure.
Instead of a shot to play for the national title, Georgia beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl as Murray threw for 427 yards and five touchdowns, both career-best marks.

It all felt anticlimactic for Murray, though nothing like this year.

“Obviously I had a vision of how I wanted to go out,” Murray said recently.

This wasn’t it.

“It’s almost like I didn't say goodbye,” he said, “which, I guess, is a good thing. I guess it's like, 'to be continued.' I'm not leaving. I'm always a Bulldog. I'll always be a Bulldog, and I guess if I would have been there to wave and really cherish the end of it, that would have been like, 'Book closed, it's over,' and I feel like it's not over for me.”

Murray is eloquent and charismatic. Martinez is quite the opposite.

Uncomfortable in the spotlight, the Nebraska quarterback hasn’t spoken to the media since the Minnesota game.

But Martinez appears to be at peace. He has remained at the side of teammates through conditioning drills and practices this month. Those close to him, though, say he’s devastated by the injury.

A generation from now, Murray and Martinez will be remembered not for this anticlimactic ending or their inability to break through and win a championship.

Time will heal their wounds. History will reflect well on their legacies. College football will remember them.

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.
The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl pits two of the nation's top runners in Georgia sophomore tailback Todd Gurley and Nebraska junior I-back Ameer Abdullah.

In the first installment of a three-part look over the next two weeks at the New Year's Day game in Jacksonville, Fla., we examine the impact of Gurley and Abdullah.

Todd Gurley, Georgia

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley's use as a receiver was a big difference-maker for Georgia's offense.
2013 Stats: 144 attempts, 903 yards, 10 TDs; 30 catches, 344 yards, 5 TDs

Season recap: Gurley strained his quadriceps while completing a 75-yard touchdown run in the second possession of the opener against Clemson. The injury limited him to 12 carries (for 154 yards) in the opener and plagued him for weeks -- right up to when he sprained his ankle in Game 4 against LSU and missed the next three games. Gurley returned to total 187 yards against Florida, but has never been the same dominant runner this season. And yet he still posted huge numbers down the stretch, including a 157-yard game against Auburn and a 158-yard game against Georgia Tech.

What he means to the offense: Georgia is a completely different team when Gurley is in the lineup. Take his four-touchdown outing against Georgia Tech, for example. Georgia ran four plays in the two overtime periods -- all of which were Gurley runs and two of which went for touchdowns. It's no coincidence that the offense bogged down, or that the Bulldogs lost twice, when Gurley sat out with the ankle injury.

Season highlight: The Georgia Tech game was probably the biggest highlight, but Gurley had a series of strong outings. He ran for 132 yards and had his first career touchdown catch in a narrow win against South Carolina. And the Bulldogs probably don't beat Florida without Gurley's two early touchdowns.

Biggest change from 2012: Georgia made it an offseason point of emphasis to work its running backs into the passing game more heavily, and it paid off. Gurley was a potent receiving weapon down the stretch, logging 87 receiving yards against Florida, 77 against Auburn and 90 against Kentucky. Only four Bulldogs finished with more receiving yards than Gurley's 344 and he tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches.

Against Nebraska last year: Gurley rushed for 81 of his 125 yards and scored a touchdown in the first half of the Bulldogs' 45-31 win against Nebraska in last season's Capital One Bowl.

Crystal ball: Without question, a healthy Gurley ranks among the nation's best running backs. He hasn't been healthy much this season and is still poised to rush for more than 1,000 yards. It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see him rank among the nation's leading Heisman Trophy contenders in 2014 and sit near the top of most projections for NFL draft-eligible running backs at this time next season.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah, Chance Carter
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah has had some problems with fumbles but has been the anchor of Nebraska's offense.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

2013 stats: 254 attempts, 1,568 yards, 8 TDs; 26 catches, 232 yards, 2 TDs

Season recap: En route to third-team All-America honors by the Associated Press and a consensus spot on the All-Big Ten first team, the junior from Homewood, Ala., topped 100 yards 10 times. He also recorded the fifth 1,500-yard rushing season at Nebraska, cementing his spot among the school’s storied history of backs.

What he means to the offense: Much like Gurley, just about everything. Nebraska this year went offensively as far as Abdullah could lead it. Conservatively, he was worth two wins to this team. The stats are impressive, but they don’t measure his value. He is the heartbeat of these Huskers, illustrated by his naming as a captain at season’s end, team MVP and lifter of the year.

Season highlight: Start with his breakthrough game in the Big Ten opener against Illinois, as Abdullah rushed for a career-best 225 yards. He churned out 123 against Michigan State’s top-rated defense. Looking for one play? Take your pick between the game-winning touchdown catch at Michigan or the 16-yard conversion on fourth-and-15 against Northwestern that set the stage for Nebraska’s Hail Mary win.

Biggest change from 2012: Even after Abdullah rushed for 1,137 yards as a sophomore, questions remained about his durability. He was, after all, a fill-in last year for Rex Burkhead, the workhorse who missed much of the season with a knee injury. Abdullah left no doubt this year about his toughness and developed into a complete back as his per-carry average jumped from 5.0 to 6.2.

Against Georgia last year: Abdullah rushed for 48 yards on seven carries, with the bulk of Nebraska’s work on the ground going to the senior Burkhead. Abdullah’s 26-yard run on the Huskers’ opening drive of the third quarter helped them take a 31-23 lead before the Bulldogs scored the final 22 points.

Crystal ball: Abdullah will seek an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, but he’s not likely to long consider their findings. Expect him back in 2014, bidding to become the first player in Nebraska history to amass three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. If he can avoid fumbles -- Abdullah lost five this year and 15 over three seasons -- a run at the Heisman isn’t out of the question.

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
10:30
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Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-4) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (8-4)

Jan. 1, noon ET, Jacksonville, Fla. (ESPN2)


NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS BREAKDOWN
Nebraska enters the bowl season with a chance to finish 9-4 for the third time under coach Bo Pelini. In the other three seasons, it finished 10-4.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJunior college transfer Randy Gregory anchored Nebraska's defense in his first season in Lincoln.
This year, though, classifies as anything but routine.

The Huskers lost record-setting senior quarterback Taylor Martinez to a foot injury that limited him to just one appearance in Big Ten play.

Right guard Spencer Long, their best offensive lineman, went down with a season-ending knee injury in early October. A devastating string of injuries along the line followed, transforming the offense from this team's strength in September to a liability by November.

If not for a 49-yard Hail Mary completion by third-string quarterback Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp against Northwestern, Nebraska would have lost its final three home games.

Harrowing wins at Michigan, featuring heroics by freshman QB Tommy Armstrong, and in overtime at Penn State allowed the Huskers to stay afloat. The young defense matured behind breakout star Randy Gregory, but a five-turnover day against Michigan State eliminated the Huskers from league-title contention on Nov. 16 -- earlier than at any time previously under Pelini.

Nebraska finished minus-12 for the year in turnover margin, better than only three teams nationally. Repeated punt-return miscues also proved costly.

Throw in a loss to UCLA (in which the Bruins scored the final 38 points), the unearthing of an unpleasant two-year-old Pelini audio tape and a meltdown by the coach during and after a post-Thanksgiving home loss to Iowa, and you've got a season that was anything but normal in Lincoln. -- Mitch Sherman

vs.
GEORGIA BULLDOGS BREAKDOWN
Mark Richt's Bulldogs recovered from an injury-induced midseason lull by winning four of their final five games -- with the one loss coming in heartbreaking fashion, when Auburn's Ricardo Louis caught a deflected pass for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley rushed for 903 yards and 10 TDs this season despite missing three games due to injury.
Georgia started the season as a top-five club, but its enormous expectations crumbled after a Week 1 loss to Clemson and a spate of injuries hit key players like receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall early in the season. The Bulldogs lost twice -- to Missouri and Vanderbilt -- in the middle of the season while many of their most valuable offensive players were sidelined, but recovered a bit once Gurley returned for the Florida game.

Georgia averaged 41.2 points per game once Gurley returned to the lineup, completing the season with a comeback, overtime win over Georgia Tech where Gurley scored four touchdowns even without SEC career passing leader Aaron Murray leading the offense.

Murray will miss the bowl game because of a torn ACL he suffered against Kentucky on senior night, so Hutson Mason will once again be under center for the Bulldogs. He has performed well thus far, going 46-for-71 for 648 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Meanwhile, Georgia's young defense has one more opportunity to develop some continuity heading into 2014. The Bulldogs surrendered a whopping 29.4 points and 381.2 yards per game, although they have generally started slowly and played better as games progressed in the second half of the season. -- David Ching

The Early Offer: Juco hits, misses 

September, 17, 2013
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's latest feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: We take a look back at how the nation’s top three junior college players from the Class of 2013 have transitioned into their roles at Ole Miss, Nebraska and Kansas.

Video: Picks of the week

September, 10, 2013
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Brett McMurphy makes his picks for the biggest games of Week 3: Wisconsin at Arizona State, UCLA at Nebraska and Alabama at Texas A&M.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Unhappiness has turned out to be a good thing for Florida’s offensive line in 2013.

It’s the reason Tyler Moore and Max Garcia left their respective schools a year ago and transferred to Florida. The addition of those two versatile players gives the Gators their toughest, most physical and best offensive line in coach Will Muschamp’s three seasons.

Now everybody’s happy.

"Oh, man, it’s the greatest decision of my life," Garcia said.

Garcia was one of several Maryland players who transferred after the 2011 season, which was coach Randy Edsall’s first in College Park. Though he started all 12 games at left tackle as a sophomore, Garcia said he had personal, academic and athletic issues during his freshman season.

When it was over, he decided he needed a change.

"I think you come to college just to be happy personally and athletically and academically, just find the right fit for you," Garcia said. "It’s all about being happy. As a player you don’t really get much more than being happy."

[+] EnlargeTyler Moore
Brad Barr/US PresswireTyler Moore set a Nebraska record with four starts on the offensive line as a true freshman before transferring to Florida.
After looking at several schools, Garcia said he believed he could be happy at Florida. It didn’t take him long to realize he was correct.

"I met Coach Muschamp and [offensive line] Coach [Tim] Davis and I met the offensive line here and I just felt at home coming down here to Florida," said Garcia, who is a 6-foot-4, 307-pound redshirt junior. "Aside from football, this is where I found Christ. He came into my life here so since I’ve been here last August my life has just changed forever and it’s for the better."

Moore’s situation was a bit different. He started the first four games and played in nine as a freshman tackle at Nebraska in 2011, but he was unhappy with the amount of playing time he got and he also believed he wasn’t being treated fairly.

He was so disgruntled that when he left school just before practice began in August 2012 he thought he was done with football.

"Little things that I had to deal with at Nebraska made me slowly hate the game after so much time being there," said Moore, whose father, great uncle and cousin played at Nebraska. "Of course everyone wants more playing time, but I believe I should have gotten more playing time throughout the year. I was busting my butt all year practicing and trying to get some playing time and still only got a few plays here and there. It’s just what the coaches want to do."

The 6-5, 315-pound Moore returned to St. Petersburg, Fla., and spent the 2012 academic year at St. Petersburg College. But as time passed, he realized he missed playing football and he considered Florida State before choosing UF.

They took different paths, but Moore and Garcia have one thing in common: Both can play multiple spots on the line. That makes them among the Gators’ most valued players.

Moore, a redshirt sophomore, was expected to battle with redshirt senior Chaz Green for the starting right tackle spot but instead has spent the entire camp working at right guard in place of injured starter Jon Halapio (torn pec). He can play all five positions, although he hasn’t snapped at UF yet.

"He’s very intelligent. He gets it," Muschamp said. "We’ve been able to plug him in across the board. He could play center if he had to. You can’t ever not emphasize enough the intelligence, and [he’s] a guy that can go in and play different spots, different angles, different assignments and different techniques from playing inside as opposed to playing outside.

"He can do a lot of things for us. He’s going to be a huge member of our football team."

Garcia is the starter at left guard and pairs with left tackle D.J. Humphries to instantly upgrade the left side. The staff moved him to left tackle for a practice and Muschamp said he performed well despite not having taken a snap there since he arrived in Gainesville.

"We got rave reviews from some of the assistant coaches there at Maryland about the type young man he was," Muschamp said. "So he was highly endorsed as a football player but more than anything as a person."

Moore and Garcia aren’t the only offensive linemen who can play multiple spots on the roster. Redshirt senior Kyle Koehne, Green and redshirt sophomore Trip Thurman can as well, and Muschamp said that will be a staple of his linemen going forward.

"We always try to recruit guys who can play multiple positions," Muschamp said. "That means they’re smart and they can do some different things for us. You’d like to be two-deep at every position and two guys that can rotate other than that. You better have a bunch [of versatile offensive linemen] and you’ve got to prepare for injuries."

Georgia's defense hunkers down

January, 1, 2013
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- On a New Year's Day when the offenses stole the show, it was actually a series of five consecutive stands by Georgia's defense that allowed the Bulldogs' powerful offense to utilize some new looks and pull away from Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.


The No. 7 Bulldogs scored the game's final 22 points after falling behind 31-23 early in the third quarter, notching a 45-31 victory and establishing multiple offensive records.

"We felt great with our game plan," said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who established new UGA bowl records with 427 passing yards, five touchdown passes and an 87-yard tunnel screen to Chris Conley for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"Obviously when you have a whole month to prepare, you can draw up some new plays. So we had some new stuff for Nebraska, some stuff that we felt comfortable with as an offense, things we'd been repping. ... We knew they would be there. We just had to execute and we did that."

Story continues on DawgNation.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The running games were supposed to dominate in Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl, but it was Georgia’s passing game that eventually lifted the Bulldogs to a 45-31 win over Nebraska.


Both teams moved the ball effectively on the ground, yes, but it was Georgia’s aerial attack that helped the Bulldogs come from behind to win a game in which the two offenses combined for 1,032 total yards and 86 points.

Let’s take a closer look at Tuesday’s game:

It was over when: Damian Swann sealed Georgia’s victory when he intercepted a Taylor Martinez deep ball at the Bulldogs’ 7-yard line and returned it 27 yards to the 34 midway through the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs drove to Nebraska’s 30-yard line before turning the ball over on downs with just 2:33 to play.

Game ball goes to: Aaron Murray and Chris Conley. Early in the third quarter, it looked like Nebraska might run away with the game, but Georgia's quarterback and his sophomore receiver connected on two touchdown passes -- a 49-yard bomb midway through the third quarter that helped tie the score and an 87-yard tunnel screen that put Georgia up 45-31 early in the fourth -- to turn things Georgia's way. Murray finished with 427 passing yards and five touchdowns, and Conley had a career-high 136 receiving yards.

Stat of the game: 589. Georgia finished with 589 yards of total offense, eclipsing the previous Capital One Bowl record of 556.

Unsung hero: Rex Burkhead. He might not get a ton of attention because of the general defensive ineptitude on Tuesday, but Nebraska’s senior running back closed an injury-filled season with a dynamic final game. He ran 24 times for 140 yards and a touchdown and also caught a 16-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. It was his first multi-touchdown game since Sept. 22 against Idaho State.

What it means: Georgia will finish a season ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2007 and achieved 12 wins in a season for only the third time in school history. Nebraska fell short of its first 11-win season since 2001.

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