Nebraska Football: The Importance of Winning the Gator Bowl

Nathaniel WaltersCorrespondent IDecember 23, 2013

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has a familiar foe in the 2014 Gator Bowl.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has a familiar foe in the 2014 Gator Bowl.Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Think about this: On November 16, Nebraska was in position to take first place in the Legends Division. The Huskers were hosting current first place Michigan State, a team they had never lost to. They were fresh off a 17-13 win at Michigan, where they held the Wolverines to -21 rushing yards and 196 overall. That was actually fewer than the Spartans had allowed (216). Hopes were high in Lincoln.

Then this happened.

Nebraska turned the ball over five times, all in its own territory, and lost 41-28 to the Spartans. The Huskers actually had more yards (392-361) than Michigan State, and running back Ameer Abdullah became the first player this season to rush for more than 100 yards against the stingy Spartan defense, accumulating 123 yards. They simply couldn't get out of their own way.

A week later, the Huskers won an overtime thriller at Penn State after the Nittany Lions (no surprise here) missed an extra point in the first quarter and then a field goal in the extra session. Nebraska kicker Pat Smith was true from 42 yards out, and Nebraska had eight wins.

Then Nebraska again unraveled at home, this time against Iowa in the regular-season finale. Senior quarterback Ron Kellogg threw interceptions on Nebraska's first two possessions, and the 38-17 Hawkeye victory mercifully closed the door on an unbelievable 2013 regular-season campaign that saw the Huskers lose to both Iowa and Minnesota in the same season and the job security of head coach Bo Pelini questioned seemingly on a daily basis.

After the loss to Iowa, many expected the Huskers to head to Tempe, Ariz., to play either Texas or Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. When the Longhorns were blown out by Baylor, the expectation of playing the Wildcats, a former conference mate of Nebraska, was nearly enough to energize the fanbase. 

Then the bowl made the odd decision to take Michigan over Nebraska, leaving the Huskers in the Gator Bowl against Georgia, who they had lost to 45-31 in last year's Capital One Bowl. The excitement of the game, for fans of both teams, has not exactly been stellar. I say that. It's more like nobody cares. At all.

There could not possibly be a better time for the Cornhuskers to shine. Recruiting has been on fire since athletic director Shawn Eichorst released a statement of confidence for head coach Bo Pelini and his coaching staff, and while the game against the Bulldogs isn't as sexy as a matchup with the Wildcats, heading to Florida for the third straight year can't possibly hurt recruiting.

Winning against Georgia, a team—like Nebraska—that faced adversity in the form of injuries to star players throughout the season, would be a much-needed feather in Pelini's cap. The biggest win of the 2013 campaign as of yet is over Michigan. Five-loss Michigan. Beating a blue blood SEC team, even four-loss Georgia, means something.

Nebraska has never won fewer than nine games with Pelini as head coach. It's also never lost fewer than four, but that may have something to do with playing in (and losing) three conference championship games in six seasons and a complete conference shift midway through his tenure. The Huskers currently sit at 8-4. They'll need to take home the Gator Bowl trophy to continue a trend that isn't nearly as bad as it's perceived.

At the end of the day, Nebraska football is alive and well. The program makes a ton of money. Nobody is giving up their season tickets. The Big Red is still a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. The new conference alignment coming in 2014 will definitely help with scheduling. A win in the Gator Bowl would do something more, though.

A sense of calm would permeate the program for the first time since the 33-0 demolition of Arizona in the 2009 Holiday Bowl. Yes it's been that long. And since I posted a video of Nebraska absolutely imploding in 2013, here's a video of the Huskers doing the exact opposite. Gosh what good defense. You know who coached that? Bo Pelini.

Tell me you're not excited about 2014. First things first, though. Win the Gator Bowl. Beat Georgia. The excitement will continue through the harsh Nebraska winter and into the beautiful Midwestern spring.

Lose, especially badly, and not even the full return of Duck Dynasty and The Walking Dead as the same show could cheer up the Big Red faithful.