ATHENS — Going into the final week of the regular season, the Georgia Bulldogs had hopes of playing for a Southeastern Conference title, maybe even claiming a spot in the four-team national playoff.
Instead, they'll close the year in a bowl sponsored by a department store.
Talk about a letdown.
No. 13 Georgia (9-3) returned to practice Wednesday to begin preparations for the Dec. 30 Belk Bowl against No. 20 Louisville (9-3).
It's an intriguing matchup, pitting the high-scoring Bulldogs against their former defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) in one of just four bowls outside the majors to feature a pair of teams ranked in The Associated Press Top 25.
That said, Georgia was hoping for so much more heading into its last game against Georgia Tech.
"We made our bed," cornerback Damian Swann said. "Now we've got to lay in it."
Based on recent history, coach Mark Richt will be on the lookout for any signs that his team isn't ready to compete against the Cardinals, a team that has a lot more to gain than the Bulldogs. Georgia has lost three of its last four bowls and looked thoroughly uninspired a year ago in a Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska after a disappointing season.
"That's where we've got to coach, and where the players have got to decide to compete," Richt said. "We've got a chance to win 10 games. ... We've got a realistic chance to finish in the Top 10 when things are all said and done."
Georgia will long lament those Southeastern Conference losses to South Carolina and Florida, teams with a combined record of 12-11. Even so, they had a shot to make the SEC championship game until Missouri rallied to beat Arkansas the day after Thanksgiving, less than 24 hours before the Bulldogs hosted their state rival.
After being knocked out of a shot at a league title, the Bulldogs were still in the driver's seat for a major bowl bid. But Georgia Tech improbably rallied in the final 18 seconds of regulation to tie the game, then preserved a wild overtime victory by picking off Hutson Mason's pass from the 9-yard line.
"You've got to have a short memory," receiver Chris Conley said. "If you do that, you realize you've got one more game to play. For the seniors, it's the last game wearing the red and black. For the younger guys, it's a way for them to jump-start next season. You go into spring practice based on what you did in bowl practice. So it's very important for them in terms of playing time next year."
Georgia is not at full strength for the game.
Richt announced that outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who led the team with six sacks, would not play in Charlotte after undergoing shoulder surgery on Tuesday.
But there has been some good news since the loss to Georgia Tech. Floyd was among four key players — along with linebacker Jordan Jenkins, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and offensive lineman John Theus — who told Richt they plan to return for their senior seasons rather than entering the NFL draft. Another offensive tackle, Kolston Houston, is also coming back after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
"Things can always change, but that's where we're at right now," Richt said. "Those guys are highly productive and worked hard, and the younger guys look up to them, too."
Mason will be playing his final college game, his lone year as the starter not quite living up his goal of going out with a championship. But the Bulldogs are averaging nearly 42 points a game, which could go down as the highest-scoring season in school history.
"This is where we're at," said Mason, a fifth-year senior. "Let's go 10-3, not 9-4, and finish this thing off right. It's been a heck of a season for the offense. Those are things when you're looking back — even though you didn't accomplish the goals you wanted to accomplish — no one can take away that you were part of the best offense in Georgia history."