Mississippi State and Georgia Tech picked a good year to have their best seasons in recent history.
For sure, the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets could be left wanting more. Mississippi State was in the playoff race until the final weeks of the season, and a loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl spoiled a bit of the Bulldogs’ season. And Georgia Tech had a shot at Florida State in the ACC title game, but like so many others it was all for naught.
Yet these teams are both in the Orange Bowl, no small feat for a matchup that would seem more likely in the Music City Bowl than in Miami.
This was also the kind of matchup that may have never happened under the BCS. Second-place ACC teams generally don’t make the premier bowl games. And by virtue of losing to an equally worthy Ole Miss, Mississippi State may have seen its bowl standing diminish in the old system.
Without a two-teams-per-conference restriction and the ACC’s automatic bid, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech will meet in an odd Orange Bowl matchup. The Yellow Jackets were last here in 2009, losing 24-14 to Iowa in their only appearance in a major bowl since the 2000 Peach Bowl. Mississippi State is making its highest profile bowl appearance since defeating Clemson 17-7 in the 1999 Peach Bowl.
Instead, the cowbells will be ringing in Sun Life Stadium while Georgia Tech fans do whatever they can to put the din out of their minds.
Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State
Kickoff: Dec. 31, 8 p.m.
Spread: Mississippi State by 7
Three Things to Watch
1. The state of State’s backfield
Mississippi State had one of the best starting backfields in the SEC for stretches this season, but there was enough inconsistency here to merit some concern. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw eight interceptions during a stretch of four SEC games from Oct. 11-Nov. 15, culminating with three picks against Alabama. He was more efficient in the final two games with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Josh Robinson also tailed off near the end of the season, averaging 48.2 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry in the final five compared to 125.3 per game and 7.2 in the first seven. Robinson didn’t rush for a touchdown in any of Mississippi State’s final four games.
2. Georgia Tech’s passing game
This is no secret: Georgia Tech isn’t going to pass very often. Jordan Thomas averaged 13.4 pass attempts per game and only once topped 20 passes. Perhaps making the pass less dangerous is a key injury. Leading receiver DeAndre Smelter (35 receptions, 715 yards, seven touchdowns) is out after suffering a torn ACL before the ACC title game. Darren Waller became Thomas’ favorite target against Florida State with five catches when no one else had more than one. Georgia Tech uses its passing game to catch teams creeping up on the option, so losing a guy who averages more than 20 yards per catch is a significant loss.
3. Stopping the option
Georgia Tech is 1-5 in bowl games under Paul Johnson, and no doubt at least one part of that poor record is that teams have time to prepare for the option. Will the odds be even against Mississippi State? Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins was hired to the same position at Florida and in a bit of an odd move, he won’t coach in the bowl game for the Bulldogs. And this was a defense that had its lapses already this season, allowing more than 500 yards to UAB, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Ole Miss.
Both teams enter the bowl game coming off a loss, but Georgia Tech is the hotter team playing in Miami. The Yellow Jackets won its final four ACC games handedly, including a 28-6 rout of Clemson, and a dramatic victory over rival Georgia in overtime on the road. Mississippi State’s 9-0 start was spoiled by road losses to Alabama and Ole Miss in two of the last three games (lowly Vanderbilt was the win). Still, Mississippi State has the healthier team and the top difference maker in Prescott.
Prediction: Mississippi State 35, Georgia Tech 24