JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Bridges to and from everywhere.
The St. Johns River and other smaller waterways cut into the heart of Jacksonville, the home of the Gator Bowl. Five bridges alone feed into the center of the city, including one, Hart Bridge, that lands near the foot of Everbank Field, where Nebraska (8-4) plays Georgia (8-4) at 11 a.m. Wednesday to kick off a New Year's Day slate of bowl games.
Husker players would like to see the 2014 Gator Bowl — televised on ESPN2 — be a bridge to something else: the 2014 season. A win Wednesday would serve as a connector to a campaign in which most of the defense and key parts of the offense are slated to return.
“It's huge to start off 2014 with a win,” said junior I-back Ameer Abdullah, who has a chance next season, if he returns for his final year, to become the first Husker with three 1,000-yard seasons. “We need it for our program.”
Said redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong: “It's a great springboard. Us being able to go out here and answer for last year and do our best this year, it'd be a great thing to go into 2014 with. We're preparing the right way for it.”
Armstrong's nod toward “last year” refers to a 45-31 loss to Georgia in the 2013 Capital One Bowl. Nebraska controlled that game until midway through the third quarter, when an Abdullah fumble on third-and-short swung momentum in the Bulldogs' direction. Georgia's victory gave the program its first 12-win season since 2002.
The Bulldogs were ranked No. 5 to start this season — poised to compete for a national title — before an opening loss at Clemson gave way to a rash of injuries on offense and the occasional big mistake by a talented but inexperienced defense.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini knows that story, chapter and verse. He probably has pages dog-eared for future reference, should the Huskers ever deal with some of the same adversity they faced in 2013. Injuries started with quarterback Taylor Martinez's foot and shoulder ailments and progressed through the rest of the offense, sparing no position group.
“Both teams went through a lot of similar things as far as injuries, a lot of things both football teams have had to deal with,” Pelini said at the joint press conference Tuesday. “I think when you face things like that — tough times as the season goes on and gets crazy — winning eight games isn't easy. I don't think people understand that. I don't think people realize that.”
So Pelini would like to see the game as a bridge from adversity for his seniors, who endured a long, grinding season full of injured toes, torn-up knees, wrenched ankles, heart-palpitating finishes and headache-inducing speculation about their coach's job security. Pelini and Abdullah were offered the same question Wednesday about 2014. Pelini focused on finishing business in 2013.
“It's about sending the seniors out the right way,” Pelini said. “These kids have done a lot for our program, won a lot of games, and when they came in, the program wasn't on the solid footing it is right now. They've come a long way and done a lot of great things and made a lot of sacrifices for this program. That's the most important thing.
“As far as how it applies to next year? Yeah, it gives you a little momentum as far as a feel-good aspect going into the offseason. But how that's going to relate to who we are as a football team next year? It won't.”
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Perhaps not. But NU rode a bowl win in the 2009 Gator Bowl to the Big 12 title game the following season. And a 2009 Holiday Bowl win led to a Top 10 ranking to start 2010. Such rankings, Georgia coach Mark Richt noted Tuesday, could mean less in the new college football playoff era, where a committee will choose four teams based on criteria not tied to any polls. But the Huskers, like any traditional program, want relevance, and a bowl win typically colors outsiders' views of progress. Fans get a return on their travel investment.
“You win that bowl game, it gives nothing but good things — maybe some bad, but less bad — for people to talk about in Nebraska,” offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “You lose the bowl game, it gives them all negative (things) to talk about until the season kicks off again.”
Pelini lauded his team's preparation for the Gator Bowl; Nebraska is arguably healthier now than it has been since the Northwestern game. Armstrong, who missed most of the last two games with an ankle injury, is “feeling a lot better,” Pelini said, and should be able to restore some run-game diversity to the offense.
Pelini wants to see his team compete, regardless of the stakes or narratives attached to the game. He shrugs off storylines and whatever else he perceives as distractions. As the Huskers practiced the other day on a makeshift football field outside a track stadium, Pelini seemed in his element. A reporter from the Jacksonville area asked Pelini how he would respond to a fan or media member who suggested the Gator Bowl lacked meaning because it wasn't for the national title.
“Those are people who have never played this sport before,” Pelini said. “Anytime you compete, it means something.”
A few seconds later, the reporter asked what Nebraska had to gain.
“A win,” Pelini said.
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the Gator Bowl press conference:
Video: UGA coach Mark Richt at the Gator Bowl press conference:
Video: Watch the Husker pep rally in Jacksonville: