January 1, 2012

Two teams, similar paths

TAMPA, Fla. - With kickoff almost here, both 18th-ranked Georgia and 12th-ranked Michigan State have spent the final hours leading up to Monday's 1 p.m. kickoff (ABC) at Raymond James Stadium thinking back on their respective seasons which are now about to come to an end.

For senior cornerback Brandon Boykin, it's been an enjoyable ride.

"This time last year people were talking about just how Georgia was not the team it used to be, coaches being on the hot seat, all this kind of crazy stuff," he said. "So for us to come back and have a great season and put Georgia back where it's supposed to be feels pretty good."

Spartan coach Mark Dantonio has been a little reflective himself.

With 36 wins, this year's Michigan State senior class has already won more games than any group of seniors in the 115-year history of Spartan football, something Dantonio said made for somewhat of a difficult scene following the team's final practice Saturday.

"It was an emotional practice, sort of saying goodbye and things of that nature," Dantonio said during Sunday's final press conference with reporters. "But we'll be ready to go. Our energy has been very, very good for us, but we'll continue to emphasize that we've got to bring our energy to this game. When you look at Georgia you see a team that plays extremely hard as well, so you've got to be able to maintain that for all four quarters of the games."

Both Michigan State and Georgia followed similar paths in 2011.

Not only did both the Spartans and Bulldogs lose in their respective conference championship games, but both come into play with identical 10-3 records.

"We'll be ready. We're hungry for an opportunity to make amends for what happened on December 3. Especially as a senior class and speaking from my perspective as a senior, I want to finish the right way with a win," MSU senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said, who has completed 240 of 369 passes for 3,016 yards and 24 touchdowns. "It's hard for me to imagine leaving as a senior with my last game as a loss. We're going to do all we can. We're facing as good an opponent as we've faced all year and it's going to be very, very challenging. Our preparation this week has been what it needs to be and we'll continue to work as hard as we can to be ready."

But identical records and defeats in their conference championship games aren't the only similarities.

Statistically, both rank in the top five nationally in total defense, with the Bulldogs third (allowing 268.8 yards per game) and the Spartans fifth (272.69).

However, just because such numbers would suggest a defensive struggle, neither Dantonio nor Bulldog coach Mark Richt are necessarily ready to assume that will be the case.

"It's true, you would predict a defensive battle, but sometimes you'll have a turnover, or a big special teams play that will lead to something positive, whether it's field position or points, so you never know," Richt said. "Now I think if both teams get the ball at the 20 and have to drive 80 yards, I'm not sure there will be a bunch of fireworks or not. If not, then 17 or 24 points might be enough to get it done."

Considering what happened last year at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, when Georgia dropped a 10-6 decision to Central Florida, as long as it's a Bulldog victory, Richt doesn't care.

"I don't think anybody enjoyed the last bowl game for us. You talk about energy, there wasn't a whole lot of it. They played harder than us, they played better than us, they played more physical than us, they deserved to win the game that day, there's no question about that. I think our players understood why they won and why we didn't," he said. "I think that was probably more valuable in our offseason than maybe it is this week. I don't think we're thinking too much about it right now. But we thought about it a lot when we started our offseason and I thought we didn't want to go through that again. I really hadn't thought much about last year's bowl game recently, but it certainly was something that jumpstarted our offseason."

Looking ahead this time, the Bulldogs hope a win Monday will propel the team to even better results in 2012.

"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."

NOTES: Richt said that redshirt freshman Ken Malcome will likely make his first career start in Monday's Outback Bowl. "I think he's going to unless something gets blown up between now and then," Richt said "which I don't think will. Kenny had a good bowl practice back in Athens but also here in town. We feel like he's earned the right to start this game. … DeAngelo Tyson (ankle) has been ruled out of the game, while linebacker Mike Gilliard (ankle) "probably won't play," according to Richt. … Offensive guard Dallas Lee (leg) is able to play, but likely will be held out to avoid any setbacks. … Richt said he has not yet signed his contract yet, although he is expected to shortly after returning to Athens. "We haven't said one thing about it since we agreed we all love each other," Richt said laughing. "We're just focusing on this game."