Georgia Tech and Kentucky will meet on the football field for the first time since 1960 when they go head-to-head in the TaxSlayer Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Jacksonville, Florida. Both schools are coming into the bowl game with momentum.
The Yellow Jackets knocked off bitter in-state rival Georgia to finish the regular season at 8-4 and meanwhile, Kentucky captured its seventh win with a stunning upset of Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
Kentucky’s two-headed rushing combination with Benny Snell and Stanley Boom Williams could be a tough duo for Georgia Tech to contain. The Jackets haven’t been great at stopping the run this year. But on the other hand, it’s never easy for opposing defenses going up against Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack.
The winner of this game will carry a ton of momentum into the offseason. Expect lots of rushing yards and a classic, physical football game in Jacksonville.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 31 at 11 a.m. ET
Where: EverBank Field (Jacksonville, Fla.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia Tech -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Kentucky’s Ground Game vs. Georgia Tech’s Run Defense
Kentucky has had an outstanding season running the football behind an experienced offensive line. Most thought that would be the Wildcats’ strength coming into the season with the return of Stanley Boom Williams at running back – and he’s been great, averaging 7.1 yards per carry and rushing for more than 1,100 yards – but it was the emergence of freshman Benny Snell that really got the ‘Cats to the next level. Snell also has gone over 1,000 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns to complement Williams in the backfield and that has helped Kentucky establish the SEC’s third-best running game. Georgia Tech’s defense has struggled to stop the run (10th in the ACC), so this should be an area Kentucky tries to take advantage of.
2. The Triple Option
Despite giving up a lot of rushing yards, the Yellow Jackets’ defense at least is familiar with trying to stop the run because it sees a ton of it in practice. Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson’s option attack is difficult to prepare for, though Kentucky will have the advantage of plenty of time to get ready for it. Georgia Tech once again led the ACC in rushing, piling up an average of 257 yards per game on the ground. It’s one of the most traditional and unique offenses in football… and it still works. Led by senior quarterback Justin Thomas, the Jackets rushed for more than 300 yards against Duke, North Carolina and Virginia Tech in consecutive weeks toward the end of the season. They seem to be hitting their stride. On the other side, Kentucky ranks 11th in the SEC (225 ypg) when it comes to stopping the run.
3. Turnover Margin/Penalties
In a game with a 3.5-point spread, one or two critical plays could end up being the difference. In this particular matchup, Georgia Tech appears to be the more disciplined team. The Yellow Jackets rank near the top of the ACC in terms of hanging on to the ball, having turned it over only 15 times this season. Tech also happens to be the least flagged team in the ACC, committing only 49 penalties in 2016. Kentucky, meanwhile, has committed 60 penalties and ranks dead last in the SEC in turnover margin, having lost the ball 27 times and ending up at a minus-6 margin. It’s hard to say whether a game will be decided based on errors like turnovers and penalties, but it’s something to keep an eye on considering the two teams trend in opposite directions.
It should be a tight game. Kentucky has won five of its last seven and Georgia Tech has won five of its last six. Momentum also is high for both teams after taking down their in-state rivals in the final week of the regular season. Kentucky is in its first bowl game since 2010 and has a chance to win eight games for the first time since ‘07. Georgia Tech could finish with nine wins – a vast improvement on last year’s 3-9 campaign. Both teams are going to be able to run the football and the fact that Kentucky has extra time to prepare for the option is a big deal. But Tech appears to be the more well-rounded team. The Yellow Jackets have an even greater advantage in the running game, and that should be evident when this one is said and done. The Wildcats won’t be able to stop the run... they haven’t done it all year.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 28, Kentucky 20
— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.