In the moments prior to the Big Ten Championship Game, many Husker fans were taking a peek at the Georgia/Alabama game as we waited for the kickoff from Indianapolis. Georgia was 11-1, and trailed 'Bama by four points with the ball on their own 15 yard line and just over a minute remaining. Alabama thought they had sealed the game with a diving interception, but it was overturned when instant replay showed the ball hit the ground. With a new lease on life, Georgia junior quarterback Aaron Murray drove the field with a 15 yard pass to junior tight end Arthur Lynch, then a 23 yard pass to senior receiver Tavarres King, and finally another 26 yard pass to Lynch to get to the 'Bama 8 yard line in the closing seconds. Rather than spike the ball and give Alabama a chance to regroup, Murray tried to throw to the corner of the end zone, but the pass was tipped to sophomore Chris Conley, who instictively caught it inbounds at the five yard line.
Only problem was that there were just five seconds left and Georgia was out of timeouts. The game ended right there, the Bulldogs were not only not headed to the BCS National Championship game, they were apparently headed all the way down to the Outback Bowl. That is, until the conference commissioners tried to knock some sense into the bowl selection committees and got the Bulldogs moved up to the Capital One Bowl. (Hard to understand how Florida aced out a team that was five yards short of a national championship berth for a spot in the Sugar Bowl, but that's the screwed up BCS system that we've been suffering through for years.)
Murray is your prototypical pro-style quarterback; he's completed over 65% of his passes this season for 3,466 yards and 31 touchdown passes with eight interceptions. He's not a threat to run the ball, losing 71 yards this season on 55 carries. Murray will be backed up by redshirt sophomore Parker Welch, who's completed three of seven passes for 39 yards and a touchdown this season. The Bulldogs are redshirting junior Hutson Mason, who completed 18 of 30 passes last year for 254 yards and two touchdowns.
As we've painfully learned this season, Nebraska has had issues stopping the run, and Georgia has two talented freshman splitting the carries this season. Todd Gurley wears #3 and Keith Marshall wears #4. Gurley is the starter, rushing 199 times this season for 1,260 yards and 16 touchdowns. Marshall has rushed for 723 yards on 109 carries with eight touchdowns. Want more bad news? Both are speedy backs; they've combined for eight runs of more than 40 yards this season. While they've alternated carries to this point, you have to expect that Georgia might try to exploit the weaknesses that Melvin Gordon exposed in the Big Ten championship game.
Tavarres King has been Murray's big play receiver, catching 39 passes for 846 yards and eight touchdowns this season. The 6'1" 200 pound flanker will set a school record for number of games played for Georgia on Tuesday. He's been recovering from a hamstring injury that has limited his practice time prior to Christmas, but has pronounced himself good to go. Knee injuries to Michael Bennett and Marlon Brown have forced Malcolm Mitchell to move back from defense; he's caught 40 passes for 572 yards and four touchdowns despite playing four games at cornerback to open the season. Tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome finished the season strong with twelve catches in the last four games.
The Bulldogs are young on the offensive line with no seniors to be found on the two deep. The most consistent performers have been sophomore center David Andrews and junior right guard Chris Burnette. Left tackle has been a concern as junior Kenarious Gates has been occasionally replaced by sophomore Mark Beard in the search of better blind-side protection. It's no secret that the Bulldogs are coveting five-star prospect Laremy Tunsil to fill this position next fall, which should give you a good idea of how concerned they are at left tackle.
The big news of this week is that senior nose guard John Jenkins is academically ineligible for the bowl game. Sounds good that a second team all-SEC player (and potential first round NFL draft pick) won't play, right? That is until you realize that junior Kwame Geathers will take his place --- and might be even better. A big game by Geathers might send him to declare for the NFL draft like his brothers did, and ESPN's Mel Kiper sees Geathers as a second or third round selection if he leaves in the spring. Defensive end Abry Jones could be back for the bowl game on one side of the Georgia three-man defensive front; he missed the second half of the season after suffering an ankle injury against Kentucky.
The player to watch on the Georgia defense is junior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones; a consensus all-American and SEC defensive player of the year. Despite missing two games due to injury, he leads the Georgia defense with 22.5 tackles for loss and an incredible 33 quarterback hurries. (That's an average of three a game!) Oh, and seven forced fumbles as well. Yikes...if he heads to the NFL, he's expected to be an early first round pick. Junior inside linebacker Alec Ogletree missed the first four games of the season, but his 98 tackles leads the Bulldogs. He's as good as gone for the NFL as presumed first round draft pick after the bowl game.
The secondary is led by senior safety Bacarri Rambo, a second-team all-SEC honoree this season. He's tied for the team lead with three interceptions and has also forced three fumbles. He was suspended for the first four games of this season, which held down his numbers and his honors; last season, he was an all-American. The emotional leader of the bunch might be senior safety Shawn Williams, who is second on the team with 87 tackles. More importantly, he called out his teammates for playing soft. The fire he lit on his teammates propelled the Bulldogs to a 17-9 win over then-#2 Florida.
Despite all of that defensive talent, SEC teams have shown you can run on Georgia. The Bulldogs rank 77th in division 1-A in rushing defense, allowing nearly 178 yards a game on the ground. (In comparison, the Huskers rank 95th giving up 195 yards a game on average.) Nebraska's more likely to exploit any rush defense weaknesses with their sixth ranked rushing offense; Georgia's is ranked 42nd nationally. Of course, that's contingent on Georgia not trying to put both Gurley and Marshall on the field simultaneously; Nebraska's biggest issues on defense have occurred when opponents have multiple rushing threats on the field at the same time. (UCLA's Brett Hundley and Johnathan Franklin, Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller, and Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon.)
That's a good strategy for Georgia, because the Bulldogs probably don't want to depend too much on their passing game against Nebraska's nation-leading pass defense. Especially considering that Aaron Murray is not a threat to run the ball. One matchup that favors Nebraska is Eric Martin against whomever Georgia lines up at left tackle. Georgia's pass defense isn't all that shabby either, ranking eighth nationally, and that makes it critical that Nebraska establish a consistent running game.