The Georgia Bulldogs were five yards away from a shot at the national title, but instead pulled off the turnpike too early and found themselves in Orlando, where they will make their final stand of the 2012-2013 season against the Big Ten's Nebraska Cornhuskers. Don't let that detour distract you, though, from the many ways in which this was close to a dream season for the resurgent Dawgs. They've won 11 games, with a shot at a 12th, which would make this the second-best win-loss record of Richt's lengthy tenure; for the second year in a row, they swept the arch-rival gauntlet of Florida, Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Auburn; and at long last they notched back-to-back wins over Florida, denying the Gators their own shot at the national title in the process.
Is the Capital One Bowl — for the third time in the last decade — a fitting destination for a team that's accomplished this much? Well, that's for the players to decide. Their motivation will be a topic prominently featured in the final Manic-Depressive Preview of the 2012-13 season . . . assuming we can find both of our previewers, that is.
Depressive Doug: Hey, man, where are you? Not being able to locate you is becoming a recurring theme of our gameday preparation.
Manic Doug: Um . . . yeah. I'm going to need a minute. I . . . sort of ended up in Miami by mistake.
DD: Dude, come on, I thought we went over this a million — wait. [pause] Oh, no. You didn't —
MD: Yeah. I did.
DD: Oh, man. Usually I'm either irritated by you or resentful of you, but now I just feel bad for you.
MD: I guess it was because of this dream I had the other night — I dreamed the Dawgs won the national title. It was so vivid, I mean, they were even playing Notre Dame and everything, and when I woke up my heart was still pounding from the excitement, so when I got in the car I guess I was still kind of thinking about it, because I was driving down I-75 and my mind was wandering and . . . well, here I am.
DD: Oh, jeez. Well, I can come get you, I guess . . . are you OK? Do you need anything?
MD: No, man, I'm fine. Having a blast. Even hung out with Luther Campbell the other night. Really good guy to talk to — has a lot of thoughts on the fiscal-cliff negotiations on Capitol Hill, surprisingly enough.
DD: Well, you can, uh, regale us all with that later, I'm sure. But it's almost prophetic in a way that your mind's apparently been on Miami the last few days, because I've got a sneaking suspicion the Dawgs have felt that way too.
MD: Oh, OK, I know where you're going with this. The Dawgs are still smarting from coming thisclose to a national title shot and missing out, so now they're gonna come out flat and get beaten by Nebraska, is that it?
DD: Something along those lines, yes.
MD: Look, I'd be lying if I said the same thought hadn't occurred to me. But you know why that's not going to happen? Because we're playing Nebraska. Ninety-seventh-ranked run defense in the country. Last seen getting steamrolled by Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game — Wisconsin, who started off the season barely being able to get out of their own way on offense. We're faster, we're more talented, we're better coached; our psyches may still be damaged by falling just short of a national title chance, but better that than to have given up 70 points to a seven-win team on national television. We're going to be fine.
DD: I really wish I could be that confident, but I still remember what happened the last time we had a bowl date against the loser of the Big Ten Championship Game. We thought we were so much better than they were, and then four quarters and three overtimes later, we were wondering just what the hell happened.
MD: You know what the difference is between this year and last year? Last year we had that 10-game winning streak and thought we were that much better than Michigan State, only to find out we were pretty evenly matched — they had some playmakers on offense and their defense was just as good as ours, and it turned out they could hang with us. This year, though, we really are better than Nebraska. I mean, what's their best win? Wisconsin in the regular season? Michigan? Penn State?
DD: What's our best win? Other than Florida?
MD: What, are you trying to act like the Florida win never happened now? Face it, we beat Florida and were five yards away from knocking off the team that's probably going to hoist the crystal football in a week's time. We've proven we can hang with elite teams. Nebraska hasn't.
DD: We proved we could hang with elite teams when properly motivated and when sporting a full roster. Right now, though, we're moping about missing out on The Show and our once formidable defensive front is operating at 50 percent of its usual manpower — John Jenkins is academically ineligible, and Abry Jones, whom we were hoping would be fully recovered from ankle surgery by now, may not be able to play after all. Whatever problems Nebraska has been having on defense, their offense has been pretty stout, particularly in the running game — 5.4 yards per carry and 254 per game, good for eighth in the nation. Even better than Alabama, the team that straight-up paved us in the Georgia Dome a few weeks ago. How confident are you, really, that we're equipped to handle this?
MD: Sure, Nebraska's got a strong running game — you know why? Because with Taylor Martinez at QB, you need a strong running game if you're going to accomplish anything. The 'Huskers are barely averaging 200 yards per game through the air, and that's against a bunch of slow-ass Big Ten defenses.
DD: Funny, you see a QB with so-so numbers, I see one who's leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency.
MD: Sounds to me like code words for "never gets asked to do too much 'cause he's not that good."
DD: Hmmm, strong running game, efficient quarterback who doesn't have to do too much . . . pretty much sums up both the teams who have beaten us this year.
MD: You know what separates Nebraska from South Carolina and Alabama, though? They have defenses and Nebraska doesn't. I mean, you sure didn't see the Tide or the Gamecocks giving up 200 yards a game on the ground this year. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are going to run wild on Tuesday — it's going to get so bad that switching to a pass-heavy offense might be our way of taking it easy on them.
DD: Funny you should mention that, since Nebraska has the number-one pass defense in the country at the moment.
MD: Hey, if I could run it for 200 yards on them without breaking a sweat, I wouldn't bother passing much, either. I mean, can you name a single elite quarterback they've faced in 2012? The Big Ten was a QB wasteland this season — after Martinez, the most efficient QB in the conference was Robert Marve. Of Purdue. The one time the 'Huskers faced a truly competent passer, it was Brett Hundley of UCLA, and he carpet-bombed them for 300-something yards and four TDs.
DD: So best-case scenario is we win an insane shootout?
MD: No, best-case scenario is we rise up, close ranks on defense, and take out our frustrations on a team that's not on our level talent-wise or coaching-wise. Which means beating them by a score of, oh, 48 to 20.
DD: Good Lord. And just how do you think we get there?
MD: Simple: With an offense that's both more balanced and more talented than anyone they've seen all season long. We use Gurley and Marshall to set up the pass, and once they start bringing eight or nine guys into the box to stop them, we open it up and throw a haymaker or two with the passing game. I've seen enough from Tavarres King, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley this season to trust them to win one-on-one battles with any of the guys in Nebraska's secondary. If we can put some points on the board early, that'll force the 'Huskers to move away from the running game and make Martinez bring them back with his arm, which is not how you want to have to win a football game. Honestly, I may need to revise my prediction here, because if anything we should be shooting to crack the half-century mark on the scoreboard.
DD: Well, before you get any more fanciful with your prediction than you already have, let me give mine. I think our offense will look pretty good — I certainly don't think Nebraska brings as much to the table on defense as Michigan State did a year ago — but I'm not going to sugarcoat things here: My confidence in our ability to stop their ground game is minimal at this point. We've been inconsistent against mobile QBs all season long, we'll probably be down two guys on the D-line that is the linchpin of everything we try to do in Todd Grantham's defensive scheme, and oh yeah, our D-line coach took off for Auburn a couple weeks ago, so we've got that instability to have to deal with. I think we'll put plenty of points on the board, but they'll be able to just about match us score for score and keep those chains moving with Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead — and the longer those drives take, the more worn-out our already depleted defense is going to get. I think it'll be close for three quarters but Nebraska will own the fourth, and we end up losing by a score of 41-34.
MD: Yeesh. Third straight bowl loss? Second straight to a fricking Big Ten team? You really know how to end an otherwise great season on a miserable note.
DD: Well, that's what I'm here for. I'm certainly not here to dose anyone up with happy pills.
MD: No kidding, you'd be terrible at that. Fortunately, our predictions still average out to a 41-31 Georgia victory, which would be our 12th overall and at least a push against the spread. Both of which I can live with.
DD: Even if it's not the national title?
MD: Yes, even if it's not the national title. See, I have to take pride in my team's accomplishments no matter what, because I know I'm the only one of us who's going to.
DD: Hey, I take pride in our team's accomplishments after the fact — I'm just too insecure to be confident about them beforehand.
MD: Well, I guess that's admirable . . . in its own sad, weird, neurotic way.
DD: And you think I'm the one who's a black belt at dishing out backhanded compliments. Look, do you need me to come get you or not?
MD: Nah, I think I can double back to Orlando on my own. Fortunately, though, I've already made friends here so we'll have a place to stay for the national title game next year.
DD: Oh, where to begin. You're already putting us in the national championship game for 2013, and yet you don't even know where it's going to be played. You're just adorable sometimes, you know that?
MD: Whatever, dude. Condescend to me all you want, but you're never going to be rid of me.
DD: [heavy sigh] I know . . . I know.