ORLANDO, Fla. — Ameer Abdullah stood outside the team buses, holding a paper Chick-fil-A bag. Something was gnawing at his empty gut.
For most of the Capital One Bowl, Nebraska outplayed a Georgia team that was 5 yards from the national championship game. Then Abdullah fumbled in enemy territory. Then Nebraska fell apart.
And instead of putting a stamp on an 11-win season and recording the signature win of the Bo Pelini era, the Huskers were left to ponder another opportunity lost. Another long winter full of questions about the program's trajectory.
How does Nebraska get over the hump? As the sun set Tuesday afternoon, Abdullah wasn't in the mood for that.
“I feel like there's no hump,” the sophomore back told me. “We just gotta finish. I'm sick of hearing about that hump crap. We just gotta finish.”
Over the next minute, Abdullah said “finish” 11 times.
“I don't care if it's 'Bama, I don't care if it's Notre Dame. Georgia was nothing special. We came out, we had 'em tied. We just didn't finish. I feel like we're a better ballclub than those guys. You saw that early. We just didn't finish. ...
“We knew they were gonna come out lively and talking. But if you hit 'em in the mouth a couple good times, they were gonna lay down. And that's what we did. We just didn't finish.”
Abdullah's words are at the heart of the conversation that will dominate Nebraska football the next eight months. How close are the Huskers? And should Bo Pelini tweak the machine or overhaul it?
The answers depend not only on your assessment of the 2013 schedule and roster, but more important, your opinion of what separates a program like Georgia from a program like Nebraska.
Is it physical or mental? Does it come down to minimizing mistakes or finding the talent to overcome mistakes? Complicating matters is that elephant in the room — the Big Ten championship debacle.
Midway through the third quarter Tuesday, it was hard to believe that night in Indy ever happened. The Huskers looked like the powerhouse from college football's super conference.
Georgia's defense was dazed and confused, panting harder than its mascot on the sideline. When Rex Burkhead capped the opening drive of the second half with a 2-yard plunge, NU had scored 17 straight. It led 31-23.
“We had 'em on their heels,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said.
You know what happened next.
Georgia touchdown. Nebraska fumble. Georgia touchdown. Nebraska punt. Georgia touchdown. Nebraska curling in the fetal position.
“It's just weird,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “You play against these great football teams and this conference and the speed and athletes they have and you see you're a play or two away from beating them. ...
“We've got to get over that hump. You just have to get over that hump and make those plays.”
Like Nebraska, Georgia made its own bevy of mistakes Tuesday. But it had enough talent to overcome them.
Aaron Murray threw the touchdown pass that Taylor Martinez missed. Bulldog wideouts caught the balls that Husker defensive backs could've deflected. Jarvis Jones got to the quarterback when the Blackshirts couldn't.
The difference between Georgia and Nebraska, according to defensive coordinator John Papuchis, isn't mental. If it were, he said, the Huskers wouldn't have won games like Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State.
But there is something intangible missing. Five years into Pelini's regime, his best win is 2010 Oklahoma State or Missouri, one week later. He continues to let big chances slip through his fingers.
Said Beck: “When we fumbled that play on third-and-1 and they scored, we didn't overcome that play to be able to get back in the game and go, 'OK guys, even though that happened, we're back.'
“It ate at us. It sat in our craw. We weren't able to get past it.”
Nebraska mounted historic rallies during its six-game winning streak. But even with a veteran lineup, it looked mentally fragile in big games.
Is there a systemic flaw in the way Pelini and his staff operate? Why do the same weaknesses pass from team to team like a bad gene? Pelini will ask himself those questions — and several others — over the next few months.
We know this much. Through 2½ quarters, it looked like the Bulldogs might lay down and call it a season. They got past it. Over the final 24 minutes, the 'Dawgs outscored NU 22-0.
“There's no question that we can play with any football team in the country,” Pelini said. “But we want to make that jump. We want to win them all. We want to compete for a national championship. I don't think we're very far away.”
Perhaps not. But 365 days ago, Pelini sat in the exact same room after losing to an SEC giant and delivered similar comments about the future. Nebraska starts 2013 no closer to the finish line.
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>> Video: Postgame press conference with NU coach Bo Pelini:
>> Video: Capital One Bowl game highlights:
>> Video: Postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust: