JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As Nebraska prepares to close out the 2013 season on Jan. 1 in a rematch with Georgia in the Gator Bowl, there is still plenty to talk about regarding the final bowl game and how the outcome could impact the Huskers moving forward into next season.
With NU's bowl week officially kicking off on today, we decided to take a look at the five biggest storylines facing the Huskers…
Who will be more motivated?
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When the bowl pairings were announced shortly following conference championship weekend, many Nebraska fans were a bit underwhelmed when it was learned that the Huskers would be getting a rematch in the Gator Bowl with the same Georgia team it faced in last year's Capital One Bowl. While NU's players and coaches tried their best to keep a positive attitude about the matchup and the opportunities it presented, it was clear that there wasn't quite the same excitement surrounding the bowl game as there had been in years past.
Nebraska wasn't alone, either, as Georgia wasn't exactly jumping for joy after going from a potential national championship contender earlier in the season to facing the same team it had just handled a year ago 45-31 in a non-BCS bowl game.
While both teams had much bigger postseason hopes going into the year, Nebraska and Georgia have been tasked with finding enough motivation to get mentally psyched up for a game that could provide a nice boost of momentum heading into 2014.
It's a very similar situation to NU's 2010 Holiday Bowl rematch against Washington, where there Huskers basically went through the motions in a 19-7 loss to a Husky squad it had demolished 56-17 earlier that same season. This time around, though, the Huskers are the ones with the revenge factor on their side.
How healthy will both teams be?
Few teams in college football were as decimated by injuries this season as Nebraska and Georgia. Both teams came into the year with BCS bowl aspirations, but after losing numerous crucial pieces on both sides of the ball to injury, the Huskers and Bulldogs were left doing all they could to keep things patched together by the end of the year.
Obviously Nebraska's injury woes have been well-documented, as losing senior All-Big Ten quarterback Taylor Martinez and nearly every starting offensive lineman at some point turned what was supposed to be one of the most potent offenses in the conference into a unit that struggled mightily down the stretch. For Georgia, it also lost its star quarterback in Aaron Murray, as well as its top two running backs at one point and four of its top five wide receivers.
The Huskers made it a point to get as much rest as possible after the regular-season ending loss to Iowa last month in order to heal up the countless nagging injuries across their roster, but it remains to be seen whether it was enough time for NU to get back to its normal self. Whichever team is able to get as close to 100 percent as possible will likely hold a major advantage in the final game of what has been a season of attrition for both teams.
Can the defense take another step?
Looking back on how bad Nebraska's defense was through the first few weeks of the season, the strides the unit made over the course of the year were pretty impressive. Say what you will about the caliber of offenses the Huskers faced during Big Ten play, but the fact remains that a young and inexperienced defense showed signs of growth every time time it took the field.
Nebraska went from being ranked No. 107 in total defense to No. 36 heading into the bowl game, improving its average yardage allowed by over 100 yards per game. The steady development of the numerous young players at all three levels played a huge part in that drastic improvement, and the fact NU only loses a handful of starters or major contributors next year gives plenty of reason for optimism.
The learning curve for NU's defense was certainly difficult to get though at times, but if the Huskers can pull off one last strong showing against a talented Georgia offense to close out the season it would give the group a tremendous amount of momentum going into next year. With some serious confidence and now finally some experience under its belt, the hope is 2014 could be a very big year for Nebraska's defense.
A chance for Pelini to make amends
The way the regular season ended couldn't have been much worse than it was for Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. Not only did his team lose two of its final three games, including a 21-point romp at the hands of rival Iowa, Pelini also had one of his more epic sideline meltdowns against the Hawkeyes and was even flagged for nearly hitting an official with his hat while arguing a call.
That wasn't even the worst of it, as Pelini then used an expletive to criticize the referees in his post-game interview and told Nebraska officials" "If they want to fire me, go ahead," when asked about his future as head coach. Though it looked like Pelini's fate had been sealed after the events during and after the game, he was given a vote of confidence by NU athletic director Shawn Eichorst a few days later.
That's what makes this final Gator Bowl game so important for Pelini. If he can guide his Huskers to a victory over a solid Georgia team, it would provide a huge lift going into the offseason just in terms of the overall morale both within and around the program. It still won't be under the most ideal circumstances, but at least Pelini can close the year on a positive note and build back some goodwill heading into his seventh season in Lincoln.
Changing the perception of 2013
There's no arguing that this season fell far short of expectations for a Nebraska team that was poised to make a run at a Big Ten Championship going into the year. Injuries and some other bad bounces turned optimism into disappointment for a 2013 campaign that had been built up to potentially be the Huskers' best shot at returning to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2001.
However, when you look back at all the bad breaks NU endured this season by losing so many key players at critical positions, being able to extend the streak of consecutive nine-win seasons to five and end a three-year bowl losing skid would be a nice ending to an otherwise frustrating year for the Huskers.
Also, with a roster full of young players who just started to cut their teeth at the college level, having the chance to carry some positive vibes over into the offseason would be huge.