TAMPA, Fla. - If there's one big difference that linebacker Christian Robinson can point to comparing next week's Outback Bowl against 12th-ranked Michigan State as opposed to last season's Liberty Bowl against Central Florida, it's the opinion that his teammates share - Tampa is not a bad place to be.
That certainly wasn't necessarily the case in Memphis, a trip Robinson said some of his teammates would just as soon not have made.
"I think we had a rough regular season and things didn't go the way we wanted. We did have a good time together at the bowl but I think there was a sense from a few people who might not be here anymore that they didn't want to be there," Robinson said. "They wanted to get out of there, they weren't happy with maybe the playing time they were getting but I think that loss was definitely turning point for us because the ones who came back, we didn't ever want that to happen again."
Wide receiver Tavarres King agreed.
According to King, it was disturbing to see so many teammates - most if not all of whom are no longer part of the program - so against playing in the game against the Knights.
"When I think about an extra game, I think about it as an opportunity to get better, but there were some guys who didn't want to be there. This game is different. This year, the mindset of the team is entirely different," King said. "That's why this is a huge game, not only because it gives us a chance to get our 11th win, but to set ourselves up for something special in next year's preseason rankings."
Thirteen games later, the 2011 campaign certainly left the Bulldogs feeling better about their collective selves.
A 10-3 record culminating with an SEC East title helped wipe the sour taste of the previous season's 6-7 campaign, and with it an actual hunger to be successful in next Monday's bowl (ABC, 1 p.m.) that wasn't there as evidenced by the team's 10-6 loss to UCF.
"Everybody is excited," Robinson said. "We're playing in a big bowl game for us and just the recovery that we've made from last season, the group of seniors we have, there's no sense of complacency, or not wanting to be here."
Head coach Mark Richt acknowledged it was a difficult lesson for his 18th-ranked team to learn.
"It was just so different a year ago, just the overall spirit of the team by the time we got to that one. We were all professional and we all wanted to do our best. It was hard to have a lot of life. It was a battle," Richt said. "But I think we've learned to understand that we get to play in a bowl game; we don't have to play in a bowl game. I think the guys are excited about the opportunity. I think overall this team has taken on a much more positive outlook on things from the very beginning starting last January."
Junior nose tackle John Jenkins can sense the excitement.
Although Jenkins was still in junior college this time last year, he said his teammates are in fact looking forward to spending the week in Florida, where the Outback Bowl has a number of fun activities planned for both teams, including trips to Busch Gardens and Clearwater Beach.
"A lot of guys are excited about this bowl game, especially the location. The location of the bowl game makes everything exciting," Jenkins said. "It's the atmosphere that we feed off of and the season that we're coming off of and the way we want to be projected going into next season, so it's a lot we want to play for."
Richt doesn't see motivation being a problem for his team, either.
"This game has a bigger feel, having a dual purpose and a dual motivation. We want to win this game for a lot of reasons. We'd like to finish with 11 wins. We would absolutely love for our seniors to walk out of that locker room with a smile on their face," he said. "It's hard to get all excited at the end of your career if the last game you played was a loss. It's tough. You're sitting there hugging everybody's neck and wishing them the best. It's going to be the last time that team is going to be together, and we want that to be a great victory. It's also the first game of 2012, and the way everything is set up in the BCS system, I think how you finish has something to do with how people see you when the season begins the next year. I think it's important for the future too to play well and try to get the victory."
The Spartans (10-3) don't figure to be a pushover. But Robinson said the Bulldogs' wouldn't have it any other way.
"We're excited about this game, we're excited we have the opportunity to play a great opponent and we're excited to show that we can be a dominating team that can compete going into next season for a national championship," Robinson said. "That's all we're talking about already."
NOTES: The Bulldogs hit the practice field at the University of Tampa Tuesday morning, the first of five practices before next Monday's game. ... After practice both teams will visit St. Joseph's Children's Hospital before taking in a Tampa Bay Lightning game later in the evening at the St. Pete Forum.