SHREVEPORT, La. -- Much of Bulldog Nation has already moved on. The pertinent questions concern 2010, such as: Who will be Georgia's three new defensive coaches? And will the weekend's sequence of events at Florida affect the balance of power in the SEC East?
But before any answers are forthcoming, Georgia's football team has one last bit of 2009 business here Monday: a game against Texas A&M in the Independence Bowl. Kickoff is 5 p.m. in 49,000-seat Independence Stadium.
This is the 13th consecutive bowl for Georgia, but the farthest removed from a New Year's Day game the Bulldogs have been since 2001. The relatively small percentage of tickets Georgia was able to sell from its allotment –- about 6,800 out of 12,000 -– has the Bulldogs braced for a pro-Aggies crowd.
Perhaps the most compelling subplot of a game that matches a 7-5 Georgia vs. a 6-6 Texas A&M will be how the Bulldogs' beleaguered defense, minus the three coaches fired on Dec. 2, fares against an Aggies offense that ranks No. 5 nationally.
Georgia's only remaining defensive coach, Rodney Garner, will be joined by two young graduate assistants, Todd Hartley and Mitch Doolittle, for the daunting assignment. Head coach Mark Richt said Sunday that defensive play-calling, previously the province of fired defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, will be a "combined effort" of Garner and Doolittle, both of whom will operate from the sideline. Hartley will be upstairs in the coach's box.
Georgia's defense will be tested by a fast-paced Aggies offense that averages 465 yards per game behind a quarterback, Jerrod Johnson, who passed for 3,217 yards and 28 touchdowns this season.
Texas A&M has been as porous on defense (104th nationally in scoring defense) as it has been prolific on offense, portending a high-scoring shootout against Georgia.
"If you just go by the averages, it'd be a high-scoring game," Richt said. "But you never know."
"My experience has been that when people talk about offensive matchups, it turns out to be a defensive battle," said Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman, a former coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers. "Certainly anything can happen."
Richt said he is approaching the game on its own merits, not as a springboard into a better 2010.
"We want to win this game for our seniors. We want to win this game for the 2009 season. It is the finish of this year," Richt said. "A lot of people talk about [a bowl] catapulting you into the future. We don't really spend a lot of time talking about that. We talk about this year. We talk about finishing strong."
The game will end the Bulldogs' worst season under Richt as well as the UGA careers of 12 seniors, including quarterback Joe Cox and standout defensive tackles Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston.
"The emotions are going to be high," Owens said Sunday. "It's going to be hard going out knowing that it's going to be my last time wearing the red hat. I'm really going to miss this place. It's been the best five years of my life."
Externally, the game is obscured by the larger issues swirling around the Georgia program and the SEC.
Richt has said he expects to name a new defensive coordinator in early January and Bulldog Nation has been focused on that process since Martinez was fired 26 days ago. Then this weekend's news from Florida –- first Saturday's statement that Gators coach Urban Meyer had resigned for health reasons, then Sunday's amendment that Meyer had opted to take an indefinite leave of absence instead -- consumed the SEC.
"It's definitely a shock wave through college football for sure," Richt said Sunday morning.
Richt said he attempted to reach Meyer late Saturday, "but his voice mail was loaded up so I didn't get an opportunity to get through to him."
"I just respect Coach Meyer, number one, as a person and as a coach," Richt said. "Doing the same job he does at a different school but in the same conference, I can understand why, if there is some type of health issue, it is probably very wise to do what he's doing. But not knowing what's all going on, all I can say is my wife and I prayed last night for him and his family.
"Some people may not know this, but my wife had cervical cancer a couple years back and coach Meyer was one of the first guys to call me to let me know that he and his wife were thinking about us."
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