The sting from the Bulldogs’ 32-28 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game lingered as bowl practice began Wednesday.
“It was the toughest loss I’ve ever been a part of,” said senior receiver Tavarres King.
Quarterback Aaron Murray usually can’t wait to devour game film. This game was different.
“I dreaded watching it, but I did,” Murray said.
Murray said Georgia still has a lot to play for. The Jan. 1 bowl game in Orlando is not a BCS bowl, but Murray said the game will define the Bulldogs’ season.
Murray said No. 5 Georgia (11-2) can reach 12 wins for only the third time in school history and finish in the top five of the polls, “which is an unbelievable season.”
“It can definitely hurt us if we don’t win the game,” Murray said. “We drop out of the top 10 and it becomes just another season.”
Time expired in the loss to Alabama after receiver Chris Conley caught a deflected pass and was tackled at the 5. Murray’s pass was intended for Malcolm Mitchell.
The plan was for a touchdown or incompletion, leaving time for another play. The tipped pass, and subsequent catch, was the worst ending for Georgia.
“I think most of them understand that you can’t turn the clock back,” said coach Mark Richt. “We fought hard, we had a great plan, we did what we could do that day. We just couldn’t get it done. We didn’t do enough to get it done, but everybody knows that you have to move on.”
Richt’s news conference, designed to preview the bowl game, was dominated by questions about the loss to Alabama.
“There were three teams left. We were one of them,” Richt said, referring to teams still in the national championship race before the SEC championship game.
“I’d say the same thing I said after the game. I was extremely disappointed in the outcome of the game, but not disappointed one bit in our players and coaches and how we battled.”
Richt said he wouldn’t change his calls in the final seconds, including his decision to have Murray run a play with 15 seconds remaining instead of spiking the ball.
“If you run a system when you are used to going fast, it’s no big deal to just call the next play,” Richt said of Georgia’s no-huddle offense. “It’s what we do. If we spike it, strategically you give them time to gather up and get their senses and get their calls in.”
Richt and Murray defended Conley for catching the deflection when an incompletion would have given Georgia another play.
Murray said he told Conley “Don’t even think about blaming yourself.”
“All of a sudden to see a ball right on you, it’s hard to not catch it,” Murray said.
Added Richt: “A wide receiver catches the ball. That’s his nature. For any wide receiver, if that ball hits in front of his face, he’s going to go get it and go catch it.”
Murray, a junior, said he will study his NFL draft options after the bowl game.
“I’m going to think about it and pray about it and sit down with my family,” Murray said.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Tuesday Murray could be a second- or third-round pick.
“I would go back another year if I were Aaron Murray because if you’re not guaranteed a first-round pick it’s wise to go back, especially if you play at Georgia with the talent around the quarterback there,” Kiper said.
Kiper said there will be questions about Murray’s size and inability to beat top teams like Alabama.
“Is he going to be 6 feet or a little over?” Kiper asked. “He’s not going to be 6-2 or 6-3.”
Murray is listed as 6-foot-1.
“I am 6-1,” he said with emphasis.
Asked about Kiper’s comments, Murray said “I don’t know. He’s not the one drafting anyone.”
Kiper projects three Georgia defensive players as first-round picks: junior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, junior inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and senior nose tackle John Jenkins. Kiper ranks Jones No. 1.
Murray said he has good reason to push back his draft decision.
“I know personally I want to win a bowl game,” he said. “I haven’t won one.”
Georgia lost to Central Florida in the 2010 Liberty Bowl in Murray’s freshman season and lost to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl after last season.
Richt said he will challenge the team’s leaders “to finish better than we did a year ago and to solidify the job that they’ve done, because I think they’ve done an outstanding job to this point.”
Senior linebacker Christian Robinson said the challenge includes moving past the loss to Alabama.
“We want to be a team that finished, we don’t want to be a great team that just gave up and laid down because their ultimate goal didn’t happen,” Robinson said. “We were five yards from being somewhere else but we don’t want to show that we weren’t worthy of it by not finishing.”