ATLANTA — This was supposed to be the time when Georgia fans began to wonder about the Bulldogs' future without four-year starting quarterback Aaron Murray.
One of the positives from No. 23 Georgia's disappointing season is that Hutson Mason already has provided evidence the 2014 offense will be in good hands.
Georgia (8-5) struggled in the red zone in the 24-19 loss to Nebraska in Wednesday's Gator Bowl, but Mason wasn't to blame. Making his second start since Murray's season ended with a knee injury, Mason again showed why he'll be heavily favored to open next season as the starter.
Mason completed 21 of 39 passes for 320 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Tight end Arthur Lynch couldn't catch a fourth-and-3 pass near the Nebraska 10 with about 25 seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs managed only one touchdown in seven trips inside the 21-yard line. Mason still found reason to be encouraged.
Mason said he feels his new role as a team leader was bolstered in his two starts, including an overtime win over Georgia Tech. Mason should benefit next season from the extra time he spent in bowl practice as the No. 1 quarterback, but he said the real difference was the much-needed experience in real games.
"It's been a big blessing," Mason said after the loss to Nebraska. "By no means am I happy Aaron got hurt, but it's been a great opportunity to get two games under my belt against two great quality teams. It's huge for going into next season. It's huge when you're talking about do guys believe in you."
Murray started every game in four seasons before his injury. That left little time for Mason's teammates to see him do anything but practice and then watch from the sideline during games.
"For my career I've been kind of known as a practice player," Mason said. "For guys to see me perform in two games, I believe that they believe in me. It's big for going into the offseason and guys believing in you and buying in and knowing that you're the leader of this team and knowing that you're in charge. So it's huge."
Mason and other 2014 seniors were told by coach Mark Richt after the Gator Bowl that it is their time.
"It really starts now," Richt said. "He's a senior. I just told the seniors their watch starts now."
Mason completed 61 percent of his passes (67 of 110) for 968 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions in four games, including two starts.
Richt said he is confident Mason will be prepared for his full season as a starter.
"I think that's one of the fastest ways you can earn respect from your teammates, is how you prepare," Richt said. "It's not an easy job to do that and Hutson knows that extremely well. I think our guys know that. They've seen him make big plays already and they know he can get it done, so I think the future is very bright."
Georgia expects to return 10 starters on defense and most of its key playmakers on offense. The biggest star of the 2014 team will be tailback Todd Gurley, who finished just shy of 1,000 yards rushing despite missing three-plus games with an ankle injury. Gurley was not at full speed after his return, and Georgia hopes the offseason will allow him to return to his 2012 form, when he rushed for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The Bulldogs were No. 5 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25. Following a season-opening 38-35 loss at then-No. 8 Clemson, Georgia took a home win over South Carolina to start a four-game winning streak that also included a close win over LSU.
Eventually, injuries devastated Georgia's depth at wide receiver and tailback. Receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall suffered season-ending knee injuries, and Gurley, receiver Michael Bennett and others missed significant time. As a fitting final insult on Senior Day against Kentucky, Murray's name was added to the list of key offensive players lost with knee injuries.
Back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt ended Georgia's realistic hopes at another shot at the Southeastern Conference championship game. The back-breaking — and heart-breaking — signature play of the season came when Auburn won on Nick Marshall's 73-yard pass that was deflected by Georgia defensive back Josh Harvey-Clemons and then caught by Ricardo Louis for the go-ahead touchdown with 25 seconds remaining.