The Landsharks of Ole Miss (7–5, 3–5 SEC) and Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech (7–5, 5–3 ACC) will converge on Music City on the eve of New Year’s Eve. Much like their travel routes — west from Oxford, Miss, and east from Atlanta, Ga. — the Rebels and Yellow Jackets have taken different routes to reach exactly the same 7–5 record and Music City Bowl destination, roughly four hours from either team’s home base.
Both Ole Miss and Georgia Tech started the season 3–0, each with signature victories — with the Rebels winning big at Texas (44–38) and the Jackets taking down eventual ACC Coastal Division champion Duke (38–14). The good vibes abruptly ended, as three-game win streaks were immediately followed by three-game losing streaks for both teams. Ole Miss was devastated by a brutal stretch at Alabama (25–0), at Auburn (41–38) and Texas A&M (41–38). Georgia Tech also fell to the trio of bowl-eligible squads Virginia Tech (17–10), at Miami (45–30) and at BYU (38–20).
The Rebs and Jackets both rallied to the seven-win mark before suffering painful losses in overtime to bitter in-state rivals — as Ole Miss lost at Mississippi State, 17–10, at the Egg Bowl and Georgia Tech lost at home to Georgia, 41–34, in double-overtime of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. The outcome of this year’s Music City Bowl will go a long way toward defining the narrative of the 2013 season for the Rebels and Yellow Jackets, both of whom have had up-and-down roller-coaster seasons.
This will be the fourth meeting between Ole Miss and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets lead the all-time series, 2–1, while the Rebels won the most recent matchup, 41–18, in the 1971 Peach Bowl. Ole Miss is 0–1 in the Music City Bowl, falling 49–38 to West Virginia in 2000; Georgia Tech is making its first appearance in the Nashville bowl that dates back to 1998.
Strangely, the underdog has won the Music City Bowl in 10 of its 15 games, with the biggest upset coming when 10-point dog Kentucky brought Big Blue Nation down the road to beat Clemson, 28–20, in 2006. An SEC team has played in the Music City Bowl in 14 of the 15 years, posting a disappointing 6–8 record — with lowly Vanderbilt and Kentucky combining for four of those victories, while traditional powers Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee combined to go 0–4.
Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 3:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ole Miss -3
Ole Miss’ Key to Victory: Stop the Ramblin’ Wreck Ground Game
Georgia Tech has the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing attack (311.7 ypg), with 3,740 yards (5.63 ypc) and 45 TDs on the ground this season. On the flip side, Tech’s passing game ranks 118th in the country (129.0 ypg), with 1,548 yards, 11 TDs and 12 INTs this year. And there are no Calvin Johnson or Demaryius Thomas-type deep threats at wideout. The Yellow Jackets are reliant almost exclusively on their triple-option running game led by quarterback Vad Lee (489 yards, 8 TDs) and running backs David Sims (846 yards, 11 TDs), Robert Godhigh (694 yards on 10.1 ypc, 6 TDs) and Zach Laskey (458 yards, 7 TDs).
Ole Miss’ rushing defense ranks a middling 53rd in the nation (155.3 ypg), having given up 1,863 yards (4.01 ypc) and a staggering 26 TDs on the ground. But in four of their five losses, the Rebels allowed at least 40 carries for 240-plus rush yards and multiple TDs. In losses to Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and Missouri, the Rebs allowed a combined 184 carries for 1,037 yards (5.6 ypc) and 13 TDs. In just four games, Ole Miss allowed 55.7 percent of its rushing yards and 50 percent of its rushing TDs for the season.
Georgia Tech’s Key to Victory: Force Bo Wallace Into Mistakes
There’s good Bo Wallace and bad Bo Wallace. The Ole Miss signal-caller accounted for 16 total TDs and two turnovers in seven wins, but just five total TDs and nine turnovers in five losses. Wallace infamously fumbled into the end zone in overtime to seal a seven-point loss to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. The junior knows Hugh Freeze’s offense — after following the Rebs coach from Arkansas State via East Mississippi CC — but Wallace can be the other team’s best player when he is not sharp.
The Yellow Jackets are 78th in the country in turnover differential (-3), having gained 19 turnovers (13 INTs, 6 fumbles) but lost 22 turnovers (12 INTs, 10 fumbles). The 19 turnovers forced ranks 75th in the nation. Although 13 INTs is not an impressive number, eight players have combined for the total and the group has made the most of their picks with 255 return yards (19.6 ypr) and two TDs, including a 95-yarder. Four players have two INTs this year, Chris Milton, Louis Young, Tyler Marcordes and Quayshawn Nealy. But the real difference maker could be senior pass rusher Jeremiah Attaochu, who had 15.5 tackles for a loss and 12.0 sacks in 12 games this season. Ole Miss true freshman tackle Laremy Tunsil (questionable to play with a knee injury) will have his hands full keeping Attaochu away from Wallace.
Key Player: Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss
The consensus No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2013, Nkemdiche has been a starter on the Rebels defensive line from Day 1. The younger brother of Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche has shown the versatility to line up anywhere along the line. At 6’5”, 294 pounds, Nkemdiche has been a force of nature as an edge-rushing defensive end as well as a 3-technique defensive tackle, applying pressure to the pocket and clogging running lanes — a skill that will be essential against Georgia Tech. Nkemdiche has battled injuries as a true freshman, but his impact has been far more meaningful than his eight tackles for a loss and two sacks would indicate.
Paul Johnson has struggled in bowl games since arriving at Georgia Tech, going 1–4 with the lone win coming against a deflated USC team (sans Matt Barkley) in last year’s Sun Bowl. Even then, the margin was just 21–7 against a group of Trojans that barely bothered to show up in El Paso after their embarrassing fall from preseason No. 1. Johnson went 2–2 in bowls at Navy and was a two-time FCS national champion back in the day at Georgia Southern. Freeze is 1–0 in bowls at Ole Miss, winning last year’s BBVA Compass Bowl, 38–17, against Pittsburgh. The recent history speaks for itself. When teams have a month to prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ unique offense, they are usually up to the task when game day finally arrives. Colonel Reb will be honky-tonkin’ in Nashville after this one.
Prediction: Ole Miss 35, Georgia Tech 31