ATHENS – If there’s one thing I’ve learned about bowl games over the years it’s that your players better had want to be there when it’s time to play. And that might be one of the more difficult propositions to predict in all of sports.
Motivation is never an issue if you’re playing in the College Football Playoff or one of the major bowls such as the Sugar, Orange, Rose or Fiesta. There’s plenty of incentive there, obviously. Or even just a rung below, in a made-for-TV event like the Buffalo Wild Wings (formerly known as the Capitol One) Bowl, there’s usually some regional pride and distinguishable seasons on the line. Georgia has won its last three games in that one, four if you go back to it being called the Citrus Bowl.
But once you dip down into the “pool of six,” where the Bulldogs seem to be swimming around a lot lately, it starts to get a little murky and unpredictable. That’s where Georgia is again this year with its designation Sunday to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis (Dec. 30, noon, ESPN).
Now, personally, I like this matchup and I like this bowl. I sure like Memphis a lot better than Birmingham and Shreveport, which apparently were on the table. But there’s a lot more to like than that.
I think it’s great that Georgia (7-5, 4-4 SEC) is playing TCU (6-6, 4-5 Big 12), a team it hasn’t played in 28 years and only three times in school history. You’ve got to like not playing a team from the ACC or Big Ten for a change, don’t you? And if there’s one silver lining to the Bulldogs dropping out of the Music City Bowl — where they’d have likely been without that whole Tech thing — it’s not having to watch them play Nebraska for the third time in five years.
And the Liberty is a storied old bowl game. It’s been around since 1959, one of the first of the “there’s some bucks to be made” expansions of that era. It actually started in Philadelphia, hence the name Liberty, but between the cold and the lack of interest came south to Memphis in 1965, where it’s still cold but there’s a lot more interest.
It was fascinating to learn Sunday that the Liberty was the first bowl game to be played indoors. Desperate to find warmth, founder Bud Dudley was convinced to move the bowl to Atlantic City and play the game inside Convention Hall. Played in 1964, a year before AstroTurf was invented, the story goes that Utah and West Virginia played on top of fresh-grown grass over burlap and concrete on a field that was four yards short (it had eight-yard-deep end zones). Utah rolled 32-6.
The Liberty had some pretty cool match-ups in the 1960s and ‘70s – such as Georgia versus Jim Donnan-led N.C. State in 1967 — and it has the distinction of being the last bowl for Alabama’s legendary coach Bear Bryant, who beat Illinois 21-15 there in Dec. of 1982. It also has had all kinds of weird incarnations since then, once extending an automatic bid to the winner of the Commander-in-Chief Trophy and once having a Conference USA tie-in.
The Liberty got back in with the SEC a few years ago. Arkansas, Texas A&M and Mississippi State have all won it the last three years.
Georgia is 1-2 in Memphis, having lost the last time it visited in 2010 and in that aforementioned matchup with Donnan’s Wolfpack in ’67. John Kasay’s left foot lifted them to a 20-17 victory in 1987.
UGA fans can only hope the Bulldogs arrive in Memphis with a better disposition that they did the last time they visited. With three players suspended for academic reasons and not thrilled to be there in the first place, they lost to a very inspired Central Florida team 10-6.
And that’s what you can’t know about this particular contest. Where the Bulldogs’ heads are going to be at is anybody’s guess, coach Kirby Smart included. Oh, they’ll say all the right things. They’ll talk about just being glad to have another “opportunity” and about enjoying the “rewards of a bowl game” for all their hard work. I asked Smart about it Sunday and he checked all those boxes.
“It’s an opportunity for everybody to get better,” Smart said during a bowl teleconference call. “And we’re going to embrace that challenge and make it fun for those guys to go out there and work and get better. They’ve got a great opponent to look forward to playing. All you’ve got to do is turn the tape on and see what they’ve done over the last three years. That should get those guys excited, to play a good team.”
But you can’t really know how the players will feel. It’s a tricky time, to be sure. Upperclassmen who have been grinding it out for the new coach for a year now have graduation and professional futures to contemplate. After 15 weeks of hard-pedaling maybe they’d prefer to coast to finish line.
The same goes for TCU. The Horned Frogs are used to playing at a higher level in recent years. They’ve played in the Fiesta and Rose bowls and finished 13-0 since Georgia was last in the Liberty and have gone 23-3 the past two seasons. Maybe they’ll be the ones who’d just as soon have stayed home.
“Our kids are excited about playing a great opponent like Georgia and about having the opportunity to come to a great city like Memphis,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said.
He thinks anyway.