Dawgs head to sunny Outback Bowl

ATHENS, Ga. -- For the first time in three years, Georgia will celebrate New Year's in sunny Florida.

The Outback Bowl on Sunday invited the SEC East champion Bulldogs (10-3) to face Michigan State (10-3) at 1 p.m. ET Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla.

"These teams feature exceptional talent, including two of the best quarterbacks in the nation, who should put on an exciting show on Jan. 2," Outback Bowl chairman Dale Dignum said in the bowl announcement, referring to Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins and Georgia's Aaron Murray, a Tampa native.

No. 16 Georgia and No. 17 Michigan State entered the weekend with BCS bowl hopes intact, but both teams lost in their conference title games.

Georgia still had a Sugar Bowl berth on its mind when it dominated top-ranked LSU in the first half of Saturday's SEC championship game. But LSU ripped through the Bulldogs in the second half of its 42-10 win, clinching its spot in the BCS title game and dropping Georgia into a non-BCS bowl.

Meanwhile, Michigan State dropped a 42-39 heartbreaker to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game and barely missed a chance to play Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

The Bulldogs were still in play for two bowls that are higher in the SEC pecking order -- the AT&T Cotton Bowl and the Capital One Bowl -- but those games instead selected higher-ranked teams. No. 6 Arkansas will face No. 8 Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 6, while No. 9 South Carolina will take on No. 20 Nebraska on Jan. 2 in the Cap One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., which will kick off at the same time as the Outback Bowl.

The Spartans -- who had perhaps the play of the year in college football when they beat Wisconsin 37-31 on Oct. 22 with a last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass -- finished with the best conference record in the Big Ten at 7-1.

Without a league championship game, they would have made their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1988. But as has happened many times in the 25-year history of the SEC title game, the higher-ranked team couldn't seal the deal and was instead forced to lick its wounds at a lesser bowl game.

In Michigan State's case, that means a game against Georgia -- which it last faced on Jan. 1, 2009, in the Cap One Bowl -- and a chance to reverse its miserable bowl fortunes. The Spartans are 2-9 since 1993 in bowl games, including a humiliating 49-7 loss to Alabama last season in the Capital One.

"Our focus is on winning our last football game -- the bowl game," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "It's important for our seniors, the winningest four-year class in Spartan history, to add a bowl victory to its long list of accomplishments."

The game will offer Georgia's seniors the chance to leave a final impression from careers that featured severe highs and lows.

The Bulldogs' fifth-year seniors were members of a 2007 team that played in the Sugar Bowl and finished second in the nation, followed by a preseason No. 1 ranking in 2008. That team went 10-3 and beat Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, while the 2009 Bulldogs (8-5) dropped to the Independence Bowl and last year's team (6-7) slipped further down the bowl pecking order to the Liberty Bowl.

This year's seniors presided over a team that claimed Georgia's first SEC East title since 2005 and won 10 consecutive games before Saturday's loss against LSU.

The highs and lows of their careers allowed them to take a philosophical view of this season's good fortunes.

"When we went to the Sugar Bowl in 2007, we thought we should have been going to the national championship, to the Rose Bowl," Georgia senior punter Drew Butler said recently. "I don't want to say we were upset with it, but we thought we deserved better. Then you go to the Capital One Bowl the next year and you want to be back to the Sugar Bowl. And then you go to Shreveport and Memphis back to back and you just want to be back in Florida.

"So you learn to take those experiences not for granted, and having that sort of maturity that's taken you through the highs and lows, you understand where you've been and what you need to do to get back to where you want to be."

The Bulldogs didn't quite make it back to where they wanted to be, but playing on Jan. 2 is a major step in a positive direction. They hope to use this bowl experience to send them into 2012 in better position than the shaky ground they occupied after losing to UCF in last year's Liberty Bowl, clinching Georgia's first losing season since 1996.

"I'm really excited for our team and especially our seniors with the opportunity to play in Tampa, which is one of the premier January bowl games," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We were fortunate to play in this game back in 2005 and had a terrific experience. This will be the first time the members of our team have the opportunity to play in Tampa, and playing a top-quality opponent like Michigan State will be a challenge we'll look forward to."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.