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What is Georgia's motivation in the TaxSlayer Bowl?

Malcolm Mitchell isn't sure what to expect from his teammates on Jan. 2 against Penn State. AP Photo/Butch Dill

Every athlete wants to win.

As former NFL coach and current ESPN personality Herm Edwards famously put it, "You play to win the game!"

But what happens when your head coach is gone, there are no coordinators in sight, your season was a major disappointment and your team is essentially being run by a group of assistants? Where's the motivation for a team without much guidance and a whole bunch of "what ifs" to remember the 2015 season by?

What are the 9-3 Georgia Bulldogs, who face Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2, playing for? A team that was once the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC Eastern Division and was even viewed as an early contender for the College Football Playoff, seemingly fell out of playoff contention after back-to-back losses to Alabama and Tennessee. The season officially went off the rails when the Dawgs lost to Florida 27-3 on Oct. 31 to get eliminated from the SEC East race.

A month later, Mark Richt was fired and Georgia's administration set its sights on Kirby Smart, who will join the team after Alabama's playoff run. A bid to the TaxSlayer Bowl must have felt must different for a team that thought it would be playing in New Year's Six bowl at the beginning of the season. And you just have to wonder how motivated and, well, interested this team will be facing a Penn State that actually wants to be here.

Earlier this month, senior wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell was asked if his teammates were focused enough heading into bowl prep and if they would take these upcoming practices seriously. He gave an almost nervous laugh before delivering a very frank answer.

“That’s what they better do," Mitchell said.

Even Mitchell, who has seen so many different sides of this program -- both positively and negatively -- wasn't sure what to expect from his teammates after everything they've been through in the past couple of months. The season was one thing, but losing the core of your coaching staff before the final game of the year can run a team ragged. It can burn you out and bleed you dry of any sort of positivity.

With a new coach and crew coming into town, no one would fault any players deciding to hold back over the next few weeks. Again, it's easy to say this team is playing for pride, but put yourself in their shoes. Their next head coach won't even be around to watch them practice or even play.

So far, interim head coach Bryan McClendon has been impressed with the team. There's been energy and focus, and Saturday's practice had the kind of pop McClendon needed to see out of the Bulldogs.

“The guys have done a nice job of focusing in and coming out ready to work every day, including [Saturday]," McClendon said. "We’ve been doing a lot of competition-type work and our guys like to compete so they’ve liked coming to practice. I absolutely loved the way we came out and competed today. I really did.”

Maybe, this team is fighting through its final batch of adversity the right way. Maybe, this team can shake the swirling distractions. Maybe, the final chapter for the 2015 Dawgs will be written the right way by a team motivated to take care of its business.

“These have probably been some of the most competitive practices this year I feel,” nose guard Chris Mayes told the Athens Banner-Herald. “Everybody is playing with a lot of energy. Guys are jumping around and competing at a high level each day. The offense and defense are constantly going at it. I feel like it’s definitely the highest energy we’ve had all year.”