TAMPA, Fla. — The Outback Bowl offers Georgia the chance to make its double-digit win season look even better and help set the stage for what’s to come for the program in 2012.
The No. 18 Bulldogs (10-3) aim for win No. 11 today against No. 12 Michigan State (10-3), something that’s been done only eight other times in program history. Georgia also wants to solidify what’s expected to be a top-10 preseason ranking next season in the 1:08 p.m. game on ABC.
“You want to have that momentum going into the ofseason to say we’re going to keep going up from here,” junior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “We’re excited about this game. We’re happy that we have an opportunity to play a great opponent and hopefully to show we are a dominating team that can compete going into next season for a national championship. That’s what we’ve all been talking about already.”
Even coach Mark Richt referred to getting to college football’s biggest stage eventually when he was asked Sunday about the criticism he’s endured in his job during the tough times.
Richt said Georgia has everything he needs — “tremendous” facilities, “great” support from fans and administration, and top coaches.
“We’re going to be knocking on the door of the greatest success that you can have in college football,” Richt said. “If we keep knocking hard enough, one day we’ll get there. That’s kind of how I see it.”
First things first — win No. 11 for this season.
Georgia last won 11 in 2007 when it went 11-2 and beat Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. That set up a preaseason No. 1 ranking the next season.
“Coach has been telling us that this game is like the beginning of next year as far as rankings and stuff like that,” linebacker Alec Ogletree said. “If we’re able to win this game, it will help out rankings going into the next year.”
Even before the new year, Georgia landed at No. 5 in the early 2012 rankings at NationalChamps.net behind LSU, Alabama, Southern California and Oregon. South Carolina was No. 6. The Bulldogs again have a favorable SEC schedule.
“Expecations will probably be off the chart,” Geoirgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “I’m sure we’ll be highly ranked going into next year. How do we handle that? Are we just as hungry as we were last year? Are we hungrier? Are we doing everything we can to avoid complanceny?”
Quarterback Aaron Murray said this year’s team changed the perception of the program and the toughness it had as the Bulldogs went from 6-7 last year to the SEC title game, where they were overwhelmed by LSU 42-10.
“If you look at our team coming back next year, we have anywhere from 15 to 17 starters coming back, depending on if a couple of juniors go or not,” Murray said. “We’re going to be pretty talented next year. I think this is going to be a great way for people to look at us and say, ‘Hey, watch out for Georgia.’ We’re not coming out like the beginning of this season and people not really worrying about us. We’re going to be a team that people are going to understand is going to be vying for another SEC championship.”
Georgia is 5-1 in January bowl games under Richt with the only loss to West Virginia, 38-35, in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, 2006.
“We would absolutely love for our seniors to walk out of that locker room with a smile on their face,” Richt said. “It’s hard to get all excited at the end of your career if the last game you played was a loss. It’s tough. You’re sitting there hugging everybody’s neck and wishing them the best. It’s going to be the last time that team is going to be together, and we want that to be a great victory.
“It’s also the first game of 2012, and the way everything is set up in the BCS system, I think how you finish has something to do with how people see you when the season begins the next year.”
Getting 11 wins would be special, but of course nowadays teams have more chances with the SEC title game and 12-game regular seasons the norm.
Cornerback Sanders Commings is eyeing going where Alabama and LSU are this year — in the BCS national title game.
“We can come back next year,” he said, “and not start off 0-2, start off 2-0 and possibly win out and play for a natty.”