#7 Mississippi State v. #12 Georgia Tech
Sun Life Stadium — Miami, FL
December 31, 2014 — 8:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
The Orange Bowl was part of the BCS rotation of games that hosted the national championship every four years. Before the championship was split off into a separate game, the Orange Bowl was host to the 13-2 Oklahoma win over Florida State at the end of the 2000 season and USC’s vacated 55-19 blowout of Oklahoma in January 2005. Of course, the game itself is no longer played in the Miami Orange Bowl, which was demolished in 2008 after seven decades of service in south Florida. Instead it is Sun Life Stadium that hosts the contest every year, a stadium purely in the 1980s mold. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or an insult, really, though the NFL has deemed it unfit to host Super Bowls until renovations take place. (That might actually be a compliment, given the NFL’s propensity for a spend-at-all-costs mentality that is increasingly inherent in college football as well. Any fighting against that prevailing attitude is always appreciated.)
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Something interesting to take into account (that is also relevant when looking at the Bulldogs’ rival that will take on TCU in the Peach Bowl) is the SEC’s recent record in non-championship games. Since the BCS expanded to a separate championship game in the 2006-07 postseason — a period that coincides with the league’s seven-year championship run — SEC schools that claimed the conference’s consolation berth went just 3-4 in the Sugar Bowl and is on a three-game losing streak in that bowl game. (Something to consider for Alabama as well, I guess.)
Now that we’ve finished that diversion from the direct topic at hand, the question needs to be asked… Will Mississippi State take the Orange Bowl seriously when a spot in the CFP bracket was so close at hand? After losing to Alabama and effectively handing the SEC West to the Tide, the Bulldogs followed it up by blowing out overmatched Vanderbilt and then folding in the Egg Bowl against rival Ole Miss. At one point the top-ranked team, it was the best season in Starkville history — and still fell short of an elusive goal that was within reach.
Dak Prescott was the heart of the Bulldog offense in 2014, building a grassroots Heisman campaign from the ground up along the way. The junior enters the bowl game four yards shy of 3000 passing yards for the year, throwing 24 touchdowns against 10 interceptions along the way. He was also the team’s second-leading rusher for the year, averaging 78 yards per game to reach the Orange Bowl with a shot at capping a season with over 1000 yards on the ground. If he reaches both marks, he’d be just the sixth quarterback in college history to pull off the feat.
Prescott’s versatility opens the door for Josh Robinson’s success on the ground (1128 yards, 6.4 per carry, 11 touchdowns) and a deep corps of receivers (six or even seven could finish the year with at least 300 receiving yards; five have already eclipsed the mark) to help Mississippi State compile over 500 total yards of offense per game. That amounts to a top-15 scoring attack that puts up over 37 points per game.
The defense was entirely of the bend-but-don’t-break variety. The 412 yards per game given up by the Bulldogs was 81st in the nation and 12th in the 14-team SEC. Yet Mississippi State allowed only 19.4 points per game, which puts them ninth in the country (and fourth in the SEC) in scoring defense. They were also the top team in the country in red zone defense, preventing teams from gaining any points on 40 percent of opportunities inside the 20. Against Georgia Tech rushing defense will be critical, and the Bulldogs were 25th nationally while allowing just 125 yards per game.
Georgia Tech wasn’t supposed to win the ACC Coastal this season, yet the Yellow Jackets survived back-to-back losses to preseason division favorites Duke and North Carolina to surprise everyone and land atop the standings. Tech finished 10-2 in the regular season before falling to the Seminoles in a close ACC Championship Game that ended in a two-point loss. Along the way they defeated Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern, knocked off Georgia for the first time since 2008, and beat Clemson 28-6.
The Georgia Tech offense under Paul Johnson has been anything but balanced, and that is entirely by design. The throwback ground-based triple option put the Yellow Jackets third nationally in rushing yardage as they racked up 333 yards per game. The attack has been ably controlled this season by sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas, who led the team with 965 rushing yards and also completed nearly 51 percent of his often long-range passes for almost 1600 yards. Nearly 10 percent of Thomas’ attempted passes went for touchdowns, and he finished the year with 22 total scores. DeAndre Smelter was his favorite target through the air, as the veteran receiver caught 35 passes for 715 yards and seven touchdowns. The team also had a pair of senior running backs, Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days, that each rushed for more than 750 yards. Laskey led the team with nine scores, while Days contributed six of his own.
Georgia Tech’s defense was good, though not great. The Yellow Jackets allowed 25 points per game, with four opponents exceeding four touchdowns over the course of the season. They gave up nearly 400 total yards of offense to opponents, and could be susceptible to the danger of a dual-threat quarterback of Prescott’s caliber. They were also tied for second nationally behind Washington with six defensive touchdowns, scoring on four of their 17 interceptions and one of 10 fumble recoveries.
What is Likely to Happen
The duel between the Yellow Jackets and Bulldogs hinges on a couple of flashpoints. Can Mississippi State’s front seven continue to hold firm against the triple option for 60 minutes? Can Georgia Tech’s defense limit the threat posed by Dak Prescott? And how motivated will the Bulldogs be for a consolation game?
In the end a combination of rumors about head coach Dan Mullen’s impending departure for this or that job has to have done something in Starkville, because they are tailing off at the end of a still-historic season. Georgia Tech is the overachiever that will ruin the Bulldog dream of an 11th victory. Justin Thomas will win the battle of dual-threat quarterbacks against a halfhearted Mississippi State effort, as the SEC continues a trend of getting up for championship dreams and falling flat when presented with an exhibition game of sorts.
Georgia Tech 31, Mississippi State 24