It's a shame that we won't see either the Michigan State Spartans or Pittsburgh Panthers at full strength for their matchup in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Thursday night because this could've been one of the more entertaining games of the season. Out is Panthers quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett, who decided to forgo this game in order to prepare for the NFL draft, along with Spartans star running back and Doak Walker Award winner Kenneth Walker III, who is the centerpiece of MSU's offense and ranks second in the country in rushing yards. Pitt also will be without offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who left for the same position at Nebraska.
There is still plenty of talent remaining on both sides — Pickett and Walker were not the only reason these teams are in the Peach Bowl, and Pitt is the ACC champion — but there is some luster lost with neither team having its full complement of playmakers.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: No. 10 Michigan State (10-2) vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh (11-2)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Spread: Michigan State -2.5
When Michigan State Has the Ball
The Spartans received some good news on Tuesday when offensive coordinator Jay Johnson confirmed that MSU will have the services of star receiver Jalen Nailor, who missed the final four games of the regular season with a hand injury. "Pick your poison" was fellow receiver Jayden Reed's message to the opposing defense as the two wideouts combined for 14 of the team's 24 receiving touchdowns, and both averaged more than 17 yards per catch on the season. With Reed and Nailor in the fold, along with quarterback Payton Thorne, look for the Spartans to test this Pittsburgh secondary that ranks near the bottom of the FBS (105th) in passing yards allowed per game at 257.4.
The backfield has some obvious question marks without Walker but is not devoid of talent. Sophomore Jordon Simmons likely gets the nod as the No. 2 rusher with 255 yards on 54 attempts (4.7 ypc), and he does have starting experience after leading the team in rushing a year ago as a freshman. Sophomore Elijah Collins ran for 988 yards back in 2019 and will be featured frequently in what likely amounts to a split workload between the two backs. It should be tough sledding for whoever lines up in the backfield facing a Pittsburgh run defense that finds itself inside the top 10 in the FBS (91.8 ypg, sixth) for the second consecutive year. The Panthers have held their last six opponents, including Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game, to less than three yards a carry.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
The bowl selection committee knew what it was doing before the opt-outs occurred because Pickett against this Michigan State secondary would've been a sight to see. Nick Patti will start at quarterback in place of Pickett, and while he does have previous starting experience, that was back in 2019 against FCS Delaware in early September of that year. There's some added motivation for Patti entering Thursday as well, with Pitt recently adding Kedon Slovis via the transfer portal. While most expect the former USC quarterback to be the eventual starter in 2022, this is an audition of sorts for Patti to show he deserves consideration for the starting job. There isn't a more favorable defense to audition with than the MSU secondary, which enters this game dead last in the country at 337.7 passing yards allowed per game.
Patti will benefit by having the services of star receiver Jordan Addison (93 rec., 1,479 yds., 17 TDs), who announced he will participate. The Biletnikoff Award winner had at least five receptions in every game this season, and he has been on a tear with 33 catches in the last three games alone. Pittsburgh didn't run the ball often in 2021 — why would you with Pickett? — ranking 106th in rush play percentage nationally, but the Panthers figure to take to the ground more with a backup quarterback at the helm. They have a talented duo in the backfield with sophomore Israel Abanikanda and Rodney Hammond Jr. who will share carries but face a tough Michigan State front that is allowing just 3.46 yards per carry to go along with nine rushing touchdowns in 12 games.
This prediction comes down to which component enters Friday's matchup most intact and not hit by opt-outs or injury. That's the Michigan State passing game which will have its full complement of playmakers with Nailor back in the lineup. A big game from the trio of Thorne, Reed, and Nailor against a forgiving Pittsburgh secondary produces an exciting affair in Mercedes-Benz Stadium despite missing two of the top six Heisman Trophy vote-getters.
Prediction: Michigan State 28, Pittsburgh 24
Podcast: Previewing Every Bowl Game
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.