5 Players To Watch
Kwame Geathers (NT, Georgia, Jr.). You probably know Geathers' name for two reasons: He's enormous (6'6, 355), and he's Georgia's new starting nose tackle after John Jenkins failed to make grades. Geathers is actually a bit more of a playmaker than Jenkins (5.0 tackles for loss to 2.0), and Georgia's line was only decent in 2012 even with Jenkins, so perhaps this isn't a big deal. But if Geathers is able to have his way with the middle of Nebraska's line and force quarterback Taylor Martinez into a reactive state in either the option game or the pass, the Huskers will struggle to sustain drives.
Todd Gurley (RB, Georgia, Fr.). So it bears mentioning that Nebraska's run defense is not as bad as it looked in the Big Ten title game, when the Huskers allowed 539 rushing yards to Wisconsin. The Huskers' defense probably also wasn't as good as it looked when it held iffy (to put it nicely) Minnesota and Iowa offenses to a combined 377 yards (218 on the ground) and 21 points. Regardless, it is probably fair to say that no single Georgia player was more excited about the prospects of playing Nebraska than Gurley, the leader of a pair of interesting Georgia freshmen in the backfield. Fresh out of high school, Gurley rushed for 1,260 yards and 16 touchdowns (backup Keith Marshall tossed in 723 yards and eight touchdowns), and when he is rolling, Georgia's offense is nearly unstoppable.
Despite the midseason losses of receivers Michael Bennett and Marlon Brown, the Georgia passing game achieved at an incredibly high level (first in the country in Passing S&P+, actually). Junior quarterback Aaron Murray completed 65 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns to eight interceptions, and each of his top three current targets -- Tavarres King, Malcolm Mitchell and Arthur Lynch -- averaged at least 11.0 yards per target. When Gurley is on, you cannot possibly have an answer for everything. Gurley rushed for 122 yards (5.3 per carry) against the stout Alabama front seven in the SEC title game, and it almost earned the Dawgs a spot in the national title game.
Jarvis Jones (OLB, Georgia, Jr.). Including even Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, there probably isn't a single defensive player more valuable to his team than Jones, who almost single-handedly beat Missouri (two fourth-quarter takeaways) and Florida (4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) and watched his defense struggle as he was hobbled with injuries midseason. Despite missing two games, Jones still finished the season with 22.5 tackles for loss (first in the country), 12.5 sacks (sixth), and seven forced fumbles (first).
And against an offense that allowed 86 tackles for loss (say this for Nebraska: you will probably see some big plays, one way or another, when the Huskers have the ball), Jones could have quite the game. And if Nebraska is able to account for him, the Huskers probably won't also be able to keep players like linebackers Alec Ogletree and Jordan Jenkins, safety Bacarri Rambo, etc., in check.
Eric Martin (DE, Nebraska, Sr.). Nebraska's defense fell apart a bit in 2011, mostly because of a sudden lack of playmakers. The Huskers made just 56 tackles for loss last fall, worse than all but six BCS conference defenses. But under new defensive coordinator John Papuchis, they bounced back a bit in 2012, improving to 73 tackles for loss and progressing from 39th to 27th in Def. F/+. (Again, that effort against Wisconsin was not the norm.) The leader: Eric Martin, with 14.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. An active front allows a fun set of defensive backs to act up a bit; safety Daimion Stafford (4.0 tackles for loss, four picks, seven passes broken up) and corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste (two interceptions, nine passes broken up) can break on the ball as well as anybody if Aaron Murray is making passes under duress. That is basically up to Martin.
Taylor Martinez (QB, Nebraska, Jr.). Maybe you've heard of him? The beta version of Johnny Manziel is no longer on pace for the four Heismans we expected from him in September 2010, but his performance has stabilized, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck has reached a solid play-calling rhythm to suit his skill set. Nebraska will give him plenty of easy passes to make on standard downs (for the season, he has completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,667 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions), and his legs are still his legs (1,183 pre-sack rushing yards and 10 touchdowns).
And while he is not, and will never be, a major passing threat, he is still capable of doing things like this.
If Nebraska's defense can hold up early on, Martinez, Ameer Abdullah, Rex Burkhead and the Nebraska offense could make things interesting. But as we have seen quite a few times through the years, an early deficit could be deadly. Again, he can pass ... as long as he doesn't have to.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. Last chance for some Jarvis Jones. He is projected as a Top 5 draft pick, and after 42 tackles for loss in two seasons, we are all basically assuming Jarvis Jones takes the leap to the pros after this game, even if he is not yet himself convinced. His return would be a boon to college football as a whole, but you should probably tune in to this one just in case this is your last chance to watch the most disruptive college defender in the game wearing a Georgia uniform. He will make it worth your while.
2. The array of possible outcomes is enormous. Georgia almost lost to Kentucky, needed a fourth-quarter surge to beat Missouri, needed a late defensive stand to beat Tennessee and got destroyed by South Carolina. The Dawgs also handed Florida its only loss, emasculated Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech, and came within five yards of the national title game. Nebraska, meanwhile, beat Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in successive weeks ... and got outscored by Ohio State and Wisconsin (the second time) by a combined 133-69.
Georgia has ranged from average to great, Nebraska from poor to very good. Both teams played their best ball of the season in November, though Georgia played even better on December 1 (Alabama 32, Georgia 28) while Nebraska fell apart (Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31). Georgia holds the edge, but after a month of reflecting on how close they came to a national title berth, there is no guarantee that the Dawgs will bring their A-game to Orlando.
3. Like Texas, Nebraska is fun to watch winning and losing. Either Taylor Martinez and company are running like crazy and throwing wide-open play-action passes, and the Nebraska defense is harassing both the ball and the quarterback, or Martinez is getting sacked a lot, the defense is getting torched, and cameras are scanning the stands for "catatonic Nebraska fan" shots. You're going to enjoy yourself either way.
4. Bonus football. Bonus football!
3 Key Factors
1. Which version of which team? Again, Georgia is not always nearly as good as it was the last time we saw the Dawgs, and Nebraska isn't always nearly that bad. We seem to have mostly written Nebraska off in this one, but while Georgia has the edge, it isn't an enormous one.
2. First-and-10. Nebraska's defense gets much, much better when it can make you one-dimensional. The Huskers rank 43rd in Standard Downs S&P+ but fourth on passing downs. Meanwhile, Nebraska's offense quickly falls apart when it falls behind schedule, ranking fourth on standard downs and 43rd on passing downs. (Continuity!) Either way, Nebraska's outcome is generally decided by whether it can avoid passing downs better than its opponent. That goes for just about everybody, actually; it goes double for the Huskers.
3. Leverage the field. An underrated aspect of this game is the field position battle. Georgia ranks 26th in the country in Field Position Advantage, but Nebraska ranks an egregious 113th. The reasons for NU's terrible showing are simple, really. First, the Huskers really do struggle with turnovers from time to time. They have thrown 11 interceptions and lost an awful 21 fumbles, most in the country. Lose the turnover battle, and you are probably handing your opponent pretty good field position in the process. Plus, NU is only mediocre in the punting department (64th in net punting), and when a Nebraska drive stalls, it likely stalls quickly. This adds up. Nebraska bears the burden of proof in this game, and to stay close the Huskers will have to at least break even in the field position department. With Jarvis Jones lurking, that is a tough proposition.
F/+ Pick: Georgia by 4.7.
Bill's Pick: Georgia by 10. Nebraska is more than capable of keeping up, especially if the Dawgs are in a funk early on. But I think that, even in a "Nebraska jumps out to an early lead" scenario, Georgia has too many weapons not to eventually pull ahead. The range outcomes could really be anything between Nebraska by 14 and Georgia by 35 (when it falls apart for Nebraska, it falls apart), so we'll just chicken out and split the difference.
1 Shutdown Fullback
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