by Rob Doster
Teams: Michigan State (10–3) vs. Georgia (10-3)
Date: Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
This game, one of the most intriguing matchups of bowl season, is a rematch of the 2009 Capital One Bowl, won by Georgia 24–12, and also another chance for the Spartans to redeem themselves against an SEC foe after losing in embarrassing fashion to Alabama 49–7 in last year's Capital One Bowl. In fact, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is still looking for his first bowl win as the boss in East Lansing (0–4). Similarly, the Bulldogs are seeking redemption after an embarrassing 10–6 Liberty Bowl loss to UCF last season.
Raymond James Stadium will play host to two 10-win teams who lost conference championship games and still have something left to prove. The Bulldogs overcame an 0–2 start to race to the SEC East title but squandered early opportunities in the SEC Championship Game and were ultimately pounded by LSU, 42–10. Meanwhile, the Spartans squandered an eight-point fourth quarter lead against Wisconsin and lost the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game 42–39.
Still, both teams seem to be headed in a positive direction, and the winner will get an extra boost of momentum heading into the stretch drive of recruiting season. Mark Richt has kept the wolves at bay and fashioned a 10-win team that boasts an elite defense, while Dantonio has led a Spartan surge on the strength of a balanced offensive attack that has averaged 38.6 ppg over MSU's last five games. The key could be the ability of the Spartans defense to contain record-setting Georgia signal-caller Aaron Murray, who set a new standard in Athens with 33 touchdown passes this season.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE HAS THE BALL:
Watching Spartans senior quarterback Kirk Cousins try to find the weak spots in Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense will be one of the highlights of bowl season. The Bulldogs are third nationally in total defense, allowing only 268.5 yards per game, but they'll have their hands full against Cousins and his complement of weapons. The Spartans turned a corner offensively after a 24–3 loss to Nebraska, scoring no fewer than 31 points over their next five games, a stretch during which Cousins has thrown 13 touchdowns with only two interceptions, including a 281-yard, three-touchdown performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. For the season, Cousins ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency (151.37). Providing balance is sophomore running back Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 900 yards and 11 scores and posted 100-yard rushing games against Iowa and Wisconsin. The Spartans were effective in protecting the football, committing only 15 turnovers all season. Leading the charge for the Dawgs defense will be explosive sophomore linebacker Jarvis Jones, who ranked third nationally in sacks with 1.04 per game and forced two fumbles.
WHEN GEORGIA HAS THE BALL:
The Dawgs will be tested by a Spartans defense that finished just a couple of notches behind Georgia in total defense (5th) and allowed only 17.5 ppg. Georgia showed nice balance on offense this season, rushing for 172.7 yards per game while throwing for 255.4. Murray shared the wealth, throwing touchdown passes to 10 different receivers this season, and he was at his best down the stretch in rivalry games against Auburn (four touchdown passes) and Georgia Tech (252 yards, four TDs) — Georgia's only two victims who posted winning records on the season. Running back Isaiah Crowell has been something of a disappointment to some Dawg fans despite leading SEC freshmen in rushing with 847 yards. The Georgia offense will try to use Crowell to loosen the Spartans defense and make things easier for Murray and top targets Malcolm Mitchell, Orson Charles and Tavarres King.
Both teams boast experienced kickers, although Georgia's Blair Walsh was uncharacteristically inconsistent this season, missing 12 field goals after missing only 13 in his first three seasons in Athens. Bulldogs punter Drew Butler is a weapon, ranking 12th nationally at 44.3 yards per boot. For Michigan State, Keshawn Martin is a effective punt returner, averaging 11.78 yards per return and taking one back for a score against Northwestern.
This matchup has everything a college football fan could want — namely, two superb quarterbacks with weapons and two imposing defenses. So which team can overcome the heartbreak of a championship game loss and find redemption in Tampa? Both squads have shown resiliency and toughness this season, but the Spartans' lack of success against SEC foes has to be a bit of a red flag. Look for the Dawgs to do just enough to win, as they have so often during the Mark Richt regime.
Georgia 24, Michigan State 21