ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's last three football games had something significant at stake.
A win over Kentucky on Nov. 19 clinched Georgia's first Southeastern Conference East Division title in six years. A win at Georgia Tech on Nov. 26 resulted in a state championship for the Bulldogs, their 10th in 11 seasons under coach Mark Richt. And a loss to LSU on Dec. 3 denied Georgia the chance to win the overall league title and a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
The next game for the Bulldogs is a Jan. 2 date with Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, which presents a trophy and contains sun and fun for both teams but may not be accompanied by much momentous concern over the outcome.
"It's not like a typical game," Bulldogs senior cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "The environment down there is more laid back, and people are kind of just able to enjoy themselves before the game. We're going to treat it like any other game but try to enjoy it at the same time."
A win in Tampa would not erase Georgia's 42-10 loss to LSU in the SEC championship game. Yet a victory over the Spartans would be a plus for the program's present and future, according to Richt.
"This game has a bigger feel, and we want to win it for a lot of reasons," Richt said. "We'd like to finish with 11 wins. We've had seven other teams here do that and we'd like to be the eighth, and we would absolutely love for our seniors to walk out of that locker room with a smile on their face.
"It's also the first game of 2012, and the way everything is set up in the BCS system, I think how you finish has something to do with how people see you when the season begins the next year."
There is also the matter of avoiding the bad taste from a year ago.
Richt had a 7-2 bowl record entering the 2010 Liberty Bowl in Memphis, but the Bulldogs fell flat in a 10-6 loss to Central Florida. The setback against the Conference USA champions saddled the Bulldogs with their first losing season since 1996.
That was the first bowl loss any player in the program had experienced.
"It was just so different a year ago, just the overall spirit of the team by the time we got to that one," Richt said. "We were all professional and we all wanted to do our best, but it was hard to have a lot of life. I think overall this team has taken on a much more positive outlook on things from the very beginning, starting last January."
Said junior receiver Tavarres King: "That was an all-time low. A lot of people weren't excited to be in that bowl."
So while the Bulldogs may not be in the national spotlight like they were when they faced the top-ranked Tigers in the Georgia Dome earlier this month, they insist they will be motivated. Even if there are trips to Busch Gardens, a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game and Clearwater Beach scheduled for the days leading up to kickoff.
"I don't care if we're riding a roller coaster the day before the game, we'll be ready to play," senior center Ben Jones said. "You're really more prepared for a bowl game than any game throughout the year."
The pecking order at tailback during Saturday's 90-minute workout was Ken Malcome, Isaiah Crowell and Brandon Harton. The competition was limited to those three, with Richard Samuel (ankle) and Carlton Thomas (knee) still nursing injuries.
"It is hard to have a full-fledge competition when they are not getting any reps," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
Starting right guard Chris Burnette sat out with a stomach bug, so backup tackle Watts Dantzler worked in Burnette's spot. The 6-foot-7, 310-pound freshman from Dalton never practiced at guard during camp but said Saturday that he started to work some there midway through the season.
"Today was actually the first day I worked a lot at guard," Dantzler said. "When I was in there, I had Ben Jones on one side of me and Justin Anderson on the other, so they were both helping me out."
Sophomore quarterback Hutson Mason told reporters after practice that he could decide after the bowl to transfer or ask to redshirt next season, which would put a year between him and starter Aaron Murray. Mason has appeared in four games each of his first two seasons and has completed 18 of 30 passes this year for 254 yards and two touchdowns.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...