JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — With any manner of luck, Georgia could have been undefeated and played in the Southeastern Conference championship game – even with the injuries that decimated the offense and secondary.
The Bulldogs lost three games by a total of eight points – all on the road. The Dogs lost 41-26 at home to Missouri, but had cut a 28-10 halftime lead to 28-26 with more than 12 minutes left in the game.
That’s how close the margin has been between 12-0 and the Bulldogs’ current record of 8-4 entering the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl against Nebraska (also 8-4) at EverBank Field on Jan. 1.
The question for Georgia fans probably shouldn’t be why the Bulldogs wound up in the Gator Bowl after holding national championship aspirations before the season, but how.
Put it into perspective: Georgia got a New Year’s Day bowl after injuries cost them six skill position players on offense, each for two or more games, and the loss of five players in the secondary for at least one game.
Then there were the heartbreaking losses to Auburn, Clemson and Vanderbilt that might have prompted lesser teams to mail in the rest of the season.
Instead, the Bulldogs rallied from 20 points behind to beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta in the final regular-season game to solidify their first invitation to the Gator Bowl since 1989.
“I think we’re blessed to be here,” Georgia coach Mark Richt coach.
“We never gave up and we kept battling,” said senior defensive end Garrison Smith. “That’s why I’m so proud of this team.”
Georgia avoided a team-wide “woe is us” attitude that most of the underclassmen credit to the senior leadership of players such as Smith, tight end Arthur Lynch, Murray and the three senior starters on the offensive line, Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette.
“Our senior leaders did a great job keeping the team up,” Norman said. “You can’t feel bad for yourself or you’re going to have a terrible season. And playing in the SEC, you don’t have time to get down on yourself because you’ve got another good team coming up.”
Georgia players and coaches have also made an effort to avoid blaming anything on injuries.
“All the adversity has made us stronger,” receiver Chris Conley said.
Some of the adversity would have crushed meeker souls. There was the tipped pass that ended up in the hands of Auburn’s Ricardo Louis for a 73-yard touchdown that gave the Tigers a 43-38 victory after Georgia had rallied from 34-17 deficit entering the fourth quarter; Vanderbilt’s 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter that led to a 31-27 victory; and the 38-35 opening-night loss to Clemson.
Georgia managed a few late victories. Murray threw an 85-yard touchdown pass to Scott-Wesley and the defense held on two plays inside the 3 to preserve a 41-30 victory over South Carolina; Murray tossed a 25-yard TD pass to Scott Wesley with 1:47 left to beat LSU 44-41; Marshall Morgan kicked a 42-yard field goal to beat Tennessee in overtime 34-31; and the Dogs held the ball for the final 8:17 left to beat Florida 23-20.
All of those examples helped a young, battered team beat rival Georgia Tech to end the regular season. The Yellow Jackets took a 20-0 lead before Georgia stormed back to force overtime. Gurley than ran for two touchdowns in both of the Dogs overtime possessions and the defense stopped Tech from the Georgia 3 in a 41-34 victory.
When Richt was asked if Georgia might not have pulled out the game against Tech had the players not faced so many close games, he replied: “There’s a good chance.”
“We were down 20 points in the fourth quarter against Auburn and took the lead,” he said. “When you know you can do that against Auburn, you have the chance to do it against anybody.”
“We had been in those situations all year, and when we get down, we know we’re never out of a game,” Smith said. “This team never gives up. Our players still have pride and respect for themselves and we fought as hard as we could.”