TAMPA, Fla. — Losing the final game is tough for any team, especially one that's had the type of success that led 12th-ranked Michigan State and No. 18 Georgia to the Outback Bowl.
BCS hopefuls until they lost the championship games of their conferences, the Spartans and Bulldogs are eager to rebound and finish on a winning note Monday
Michigan State has dropped five consecutive bowl games, four of them under coach Mark Dantonio. Georgia is 7-3 in holiday appearances under Mark Richt, but hasn't forgotten how it felt heading home following a disappointing loss to Central Florida in last season's Liberty Bowl.
Neither team is dwelling on the importance of setting the tone for a successful 2012, though they concede the offseason won't seem nearly as long coming off a win.
"I don't think anybody enjoyed the last bowl game for us," Richt said.
Richt said while the Bulldogs' disappointing performance against UCF hasn't been much of a motivation in preparing for the Outback Bowl, it did spur his players in the months leading up to this season.
"You talk about energy, there wasn't a whole lot of it. They played harder than us, they played better than us, the played more physical than us, they deserved to win the game that day, there's no question about that. I think our players understood why they won and why we didn't."
Michigan State hasn't won a bowl game since beating Fresno State in the 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl. The Spartans have lost by an average of three touchdowns in their past three appearances under Dantonio, including New Year's Day losses to Georgia (24-12) and Alabama (49-7) in the Capital One Bowl in 2009 and 2011.
Despite a lack of bowl success under Dantonio, the Spartans have made significant progress during the coach's five years in East Lansing. This season's outgoing senior class is comprised mostly of Dantonio's first recruits and has 36 victories, more than any group in the 115-year history of the Michigan State program.
"I talked about it a little bit just in terms of how you feel as a coach addressing your football team after a loss, when you're looking at your seniors and it's their last football game, they're taking off that uniform for the last time," Dantonio said.
"It's more about how you feel after the game," the coach added. "It's more about us all experiencing that and understanding what it's going to take to rectify that situation."
Michigan State had a school-record 11 victories in 2010 and has won at least 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time. The Spartans' bid for a trip to the Rose Bowl ended with a 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game last month.
Dantonio feels people who harp on their bowl record since his arrival aren't seeing the whole picture.
"I think we've played some outstanding football teams in that period of four years. You get a game like this, you're going to play somebody good," the Spartans coach said. "That's a thing people need to recognize. It's always about the last game you played. You're evaluated on that last game. You finish on a high note, things look great. ... We were 11-1 last year, played Alabama. All you heard about basically was: 'We didn't get it done, this and that.' It's about how you finish."
Georgia's loss in last season's Liberty Bowl the left the Bulldogs with the only losing season they've had in 11 seasons under Richt. They began this season with consecutive losses Boise State and South Carolina, then rattled off 10 consecutive wins heading into the Southeastern Conference championship game against top-ranked LSU.
The Bulldogs built an early 10-0 lead but was dominated over the final three quarters to lose the title game 42-10.
"I really hadn't thought much about last year's bowl game recently," Richt said, "but it certainly was something that jumpstarted our offseason."
Looking back on the Capital One Bowl matchup against Michigan State three years ago, the Georgia coach noted that the Bulldogs were loaded with talent that included several players who have been — or eventually will be — drafted into the NFL, including 2009 No. 1 overall selection Matthew Stafford.
Richt watched film of that game, gleaning information that might be helpful for preparing to face the Spartans again. He couldn't help but wonder, too, if his own team is as talented now as it was heading into the previous meeting in Orlando.
"The players we had on offense, a lot of those guys ended up in the NFL. ... So, I'm like, 'Gosh, are we as good as we were back then? That's going to be a big question," Richt said. "Michigan State is a very well-coached team football team. When you watch film you can tell in a heartbeat."
The Outback Bowl trip has been a homecoming for Georgia stars Aaron Murray and Orson Charles. The quarterback and tight end were high school teammates and won a state championship at Tampa Plant.
Murray has thrown for 2,861 yards and a Bulldogs' single-season record 33 touchdowns. Charles, who may consider turning pro after the game, has a team-leading 44 receptions for 572 yards and five TDs.
It will be Kirk Cousins' last game for Michigan State. In addition to having more wins than any quarterback in school history with 26, the senior has thrown for 3,016 yards and 24 TDs this season. He's 102 yards shy of becoming the Spartans' career leader in yards passing.
"I've told my dad and my family lately that I feel like I've given everything I can to Michigan State. Win or lose, I'll be very proud of the effort that I've and our program have given over the past five years," Cousins said.
"I understand there's been some tough losses and times we've fallen short, but I believe I've never once look at myself and regretted not giving more. I've given all I can to make this program the best it can be and so I'm very proud of that effort."