Jacksonville, Fla. — This is a game unto itself, belonging neither to the past nor the future. Georgia will play Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl; the result will mean less than zero. The man who assembled these Bulldogs now works in Coral Gables, Fla. The man who will guide the Bulldogs next season was planning to swing by Duval County before returning to Tuscaloosa, where he has more pressing fish to fry.
Georgia’s defensive coordinator of 2015 (Jeremy Pruitt) is likewise gone to Alabama, where he’s sharing an office with Kirby Smart, who will be Georgia’s head coach in 2016. Georgia’s offensive coordinator of 2015 was under contract through 2017, but he’s not working the TaxSlayer because … well, apparently because he doesn’t feel like it.
Georgia’s interim head coach (Bryan McClendon) is bound for South Carolina after the game. Georgia’s interim play-caller (John Lilly) won’t be working for Georgia next season. Of the three quarterbacks who began this season as Bulldogs, one has left for Colorado State, another has become a punter and the third – Greyson Lambert, the starter for every game except for Faton Bauta’s unforgettable stint against Florida, which also came in this city – mightn’t start another college game. Georgia’s best defender (Leonard Floyd) is bound for the NFL with eligibility remaining. Georgia’s best offensive player (Nick Chubb) is rehabbing the knee he hurt in October.
This isn’t so much a game as a departure lounge. The Bulldogs can prove nothing by beating Penn State except that they’re better than Penn State, which hasn’t won a game since Halloween. By way of contrast, Georgia hasn’t lost since Oct. 31, but the best of its nine victories was against … Georgia Southern in overtime?
Not to be cruel, but this is the sort of game to which the Bulldogs grew accustomed under Mark Richt – a who-cares affair in Florida against an unassuming Big Ten opponent – and it’s doubly cruel because of the venue. It was at EverBank Field that Richt’s reign came undone. The egregious loss to Will Muschamp’s Florida on Nov. 1, 2014, lit the fuse. The Bauta-led loss to Jim McElwain’s Florida 365 days later was the boom-goes-the-dynamite moment.
Apart from the new-ish College Football Playoff semifinals, bowls essentially run on hot air. Every team says its bowl can top off a memorable season and set a tone for next year. Rarely are those sentiments borne out. The only thing memorable about this Georgia season was that its coach of 15 years got fired. There’s no tone to be sounded Saturday because not many folks involved will be in place when the Bulldogs face North Carolina in the Dome on Sept. 3. This is the ultimate one-off.
“Obviously some things have been going on,” tackle John Theus said, massively understating. But say this for the Bulldogs: They put on brave and happy faces at Friday’s media briefing. Indeed, senior linebacker Jordan Jenkins said the team was “more focused” for this bowl than for others of recent vintage, which made you think, “Really? How?””
Asked for his understanding of why Schottenheimer isn’t here, McClendon – who as an offensive assistant worked under the missing O.C. – said the two have had conversations he’d like to keep private. Which is likewise fine. Georgia might have been better served paying Schotty to go away months ago. (Be advised that he won’t collect his bowl bonus, though.)
It was 33 years ago Friday that Georgia and Penn State played for the national championship, the Nittany Lions winning 27-23 in the Superdome behind Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner and the pesky Greg Garrity. That was Herschel Walker’s last game as an amateur. The Bulldogs haven’t clambered to the summit of college football since.
Maybe Smart, who will coach Alabama’s defense in the national title game for the fourth time in seven years, can lift Georgia to a postseason game about which everyone cares. File that under “future business.” File the TaxSlayer Bowl under “strangest game in the 123-year history of Georgia football.” Then forget all about it.