At the risk of sounding overly melodramatic, the 2012 Outback Bowl encapsulated everything that Georgia football has embodied, good, bad, and contradictory, for the last several seasons.
In the course of their triple-overtime loss to the Michigan St. Spartans in Tampa, the Georgia Bulldogs were aggressive enough to hold the Big Ten runners-up scoreless in the first half yet conservative enough to keep the Green and White in the game. The SEC East champions played with tremendous discipline at times, yet they also proved maddeningly mistake-prone at others. The Classic City Canines were able to come back yet unable to sustain a lead. Aaron Murray finished the season with 35 touchdown passes, ten more than Matthew Stafford threw in 2008, but the Athenians’ sophomore signal caller also finished the season with 14 interceptions, one less than Joe Cox threw in 2009.
The Bulldogs played a game featuring both big plays and dumb plays, which showcased thrilling special teams successes and baffling special teams gaffes, and which, in the end, followed up a ten-game winning streak with a second straight gut-wrenching bowl loss . . . only, this time, the difference in the game wasn’t the decision to kick an early field goal deep in the opponent’s territory on fourth and short, but rather the decision to go for it deep in the opponent’s territory on fourth and short, much as I urged our head coach to do exactly one year ago.
So now the naysayers, both within Bulldog Nation and without, will show up to say, “See? We told you so!” The Conference USA champion had lost four straight Liberty Bowls . . . until the game against Georgia in 2010. The Boise St. Broncos had lost four straight meetings with SEC squads . . . until the game against Georgia in 2011. The Spartans had lost five straight bowl games . . . until the game against Georgia in 2012. Second verse, same as the first.
Those who say so, of course, will ignore how absolutely even the Outback Bowl was. Each team gained 15 first downs. Each team turned the ball over thrice. Georgia converted six of 19 attempts on third and fourth down; Michigan State, six of 20 tries in such situations. For crying out loud, it went to triple overtime. However, we lost, so we still haven’t beaten anybody; so the refrain will go.
Here in the real world, however, the answers and explanations are a bit more messy and muddled than the prevailing narrative would have you believe. We are left with the same question we had following the SEC Championship Game; viz., which was the real Georgia team, the first-half Bulldogs who built up double-digit leads on Louisiana State and Michigan State, or the second-half Bulldogs who let those leads get away?
I don’t know the answer to that question, though it bears noting that we wouldn’t have known that answer if the Red and Black had forced a fourth overtime and prevailed, either. Bowl wins to cap off the 2007 and 2008 seasons did not prevent the ‘Dawgs from faltering in the ensuing campaigns, just as a bowl loss in 2010 did not impair the ability of the Athenians to rebound in 2011.
Nevertheless, the loss in Raymond James Stadium, like the Red and Black’s other two losses in an NFL venue this autumn, did much to dim the luster of the Bulldogs’ campaign of resurgence, and it sends us into the long hiatus separating seasons on a down note, making us understandably more disposed to focus on the half of the glass that remains empty one day after New Year’s Day 2012. We should not forget, however, that a half-empty glass is a half-glass more full than the one fate placed on the table before us one day before New Year’s Day 2011.