Big Ten bowl preview: In Gator Bowl, Huskers work on next year

Big Ten bowl preview: In Gator Bowl, Huskers work on next year
December 31, 2013, 8:45 am
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Vinnie Duber

Sometimes you wonder just how happy teams are to be playing in the less-than-marquee bowl games.

Take the Gator Bowl, for example, which pits a pair of big-time college football programs against each other in Nebraska and Georgia. Both fan bases feel their teams belong in the national-title hunt each season. If they're not there, things must be going horribly wrong. And things did go pretty poorly for both these teams this season. Georgia was a preseason top-10 team that finished with four losses, and Nebraska is another four-loss team only a year removed from an appearance in the Big Ten championship game.

So just how happy are the Huskers and Bulldogs to be in the Gator Bowl?

Well, for the Huskers, at least, the Gator Bowl isn't so much about this season — though a win would make it six nine-win campaigns under head coach Bo Pelini. It's much more about getting momentum heading into next season. And momentum is something the Huskers could use.

"We want to win," said All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah after Saturday's practice in Florida. "We're not messing around, we understand what this win could do going into next year and what it could do for this program. And we need a win. So we're focused on that, and that's how we're working, with that attitude."

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2013 was filled with plenty of adversity for these Huskers. Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez was banged up from the get-go, and he appeared in just four of the team's 12 games this season. Without a leader on offense, the Huskers weren't able to overcome the bevy of mistakes made by a young defense. Abdullah still managed to have himself a great season, rushing for 1,568 yards, including 100-plus-yard days in 10 of 12 games. But his terrific year was overshadowed as headlines and talking points were dominated by questions concerning Pelini's job security.

But, again, there's always next year, and if the Huskers are aiming toward 2014 already, they can get a sneak preview of what they'll get in freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. They saw plenty of Armstrong this season. He started seven games and threw for 803 yards but matched his seven touchdown throws with seven interceptions. And he also suffered an injury, his coming late in the season.

He'll need to be better if the Huskers are going to be better come next season. The Gator Bowl is his first chance to make that step.

"I'm pretty confident, just being thrown into the fire like this year, pretty much, and being able to do the things that I did," Armstrong said Saturday. "I made some mistakes here and there, but I've learned a lot from this past year. The offseason is the best thing for me next year."

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"Tommy's done well," Pelini said after Sunday's practice. "I think he's feeling a lot better. I haven't seen any signs of his ankle or his foot, and he's doing a good job. I have a lot of confidence in Tommy. It's his next opportunity to continue to grow. He's a young player, and every time he comes out here he prepares hard and he's getting better."

Though Georgia's season also ended in somewhat disappointing fashion, the Bulldogs will be quite the challenge for the Huskers. Three of Georgia's four losses came to teams currently ranked in the top 10: Clemson, Missouri and national-title-game participant Auburn. Pro-prospect quarterback Aaron Murray won't play in the Gator Bowl due to a season-ending injury, but that's not stopping Pelini, with his weak defense and freshman quarterback, from anticipating a strong showing from Georgia.

"I think it's about just going out and trying to play your best football game," Pelini said. "We're playing a heck of a good football team, a very talented team and a well-coached football team. At the end of the day you go out there — I like how we've prepared. The kids have been focused, and we've had great tempo in practice. It's going to come down to making plays on game day."

Nebraska and Georgia kick off in the Gator Bowl at 11 a.m. Wednesday on ESPN 2.