Georgia has something to prove in Independence Bowl

SHREVEPORT, La. — For Texas A&M, it's a stepping-stone. After a down season a year ago, the Aggies are making their return to the post-season with a chance to get their first bowl win since 2001 against what their fans consider a marquee opponent.

For Georgia, it's a step back. Just 18 months ago, the Bulldogs were the No. 1 team in the country. Now, they're wrapping up a 7-5 season in a lower-tier bowl game against an opponent that is thrilled to have finished at .500.

While the Aggies are looking to the future, Georgia is in a state of limbo — down three defensive coaches after Mark Richt dismissed Willie Martinez and two other assistants earlier this month. And the Bulldogs are hoping to win one final game for a group of seniors who have been maligned by fans.

On the surface, Monday's Independence Bowl is a matchup of two big-name schools that showcase the contrasting styles of the high-flying Big 12 and the powerful Southeastern Conference.

But this game presents a contrast in perceptions. One team is playing for the future, and the other is simply riding out the final chapter of this year's story.

"We've prepared for, and we want to win, this game for our seniors," Richt said. "We want to win this game for the 2009 season. It's the finish of this year. A lot of people talk about it catapulting you into the future. We don't really spend time talking about that. We talk about this year. We talk about finishing strong."

Richt might be saying all the right things, but this game represents its earliest bowl since Richt's first season in 2001 when the team played in the Music City Bowl.

It represents a vague limbo for the coaching staff, which is using a makeshift unit that includes two graduate assistants to handle the defense. No coordinator has been hired, although a number of false starts have already been chronicled.

It represents a final chance for seniors Joe Cox and Prince Miller and Bryan Evans to play in a Georgia uniform, but they have engendered most of the ill will from disappointed fans this season, too.

The players realize that Monday's game might be determined by a single question: Is this the end of a bad year or the start of something new?

"It's been an up-and-down season for the team and the defense, but we're trying to prove to people at the beginning of the year that we're trying to turn things around before next season starts," linebacker Darryl Gamble said.

Texas A&M is hoping to prove the same thing, but the risks and rewards are different.

While a 7-5 campaign in 2009 led to shakeups on the coaching staff and boos from fans in Georgia, a 6-6 record was cause for celebration for the Aggies.

"I feel like our team has handled adversity really well. We've come together, we've responded to challenges really well, and I feel like we have a bunch of winners on our team," Aggies Coach Mike Sherman said.

While a date with a .500 opponent is seen as a step back for Georgia, Sherman admits a win over the Bulldogs would "be huge for us."

While Georgia bids farewell to its seniors, A&M sees a bright future with junior quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who threw 28 touchdowns this year, and an offense that ranked fifth in the country in total yards.

The theme was similar in Georgia's last matchup, too. The Bulldogs entered their regular-season finale against Georgia Tech a defeated team, and the Yellow Jackets were on the verge of the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.

The result was a win Georgia quarterback Joe Cox called the sweetest of the season for his team.

And yet, the doubters remain, and Evans said his team still hears them. So while Monday's Independence Bowl isn't likely to mark a turning point in the program's history or provide a steppingstone toward the future, a victory would be no less meaningful.

That's how this year has gone, after all, Evans said. It has always been an uphill climb, so the game is just one more challenge to meet.

"There's a lot to prove," Evans said. "We have no full-time coaches other than one on defense, and that gives people the thought that we have no chance. We just want to go out and show them we can do it with a coach or without a coach."