Penn State v. Georgia
EverBank Field — Jacksonville, FL
January 2, 2016 — 12:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
Watching the TaxSlayer Bowl provides a historical continuum, as it was the pre-sponsorship Gator Bowl which became the first nationally-televised bowl game in 1955. The game unfortunately dropped the “Gator” from the title last season, but the game remains the sixth-oldest bowl game in the country, a staple of the Jacksonville community since 1946. Celebrating its 71st edition in 2016, the game provides the last of four referendums of the season on the relative strength of the Big Ten and the SEC. One team is in transition between head coaches, while the other continues to hunt for an offensive identity. It should make for a sometimes-sloppy, always-interesting way to start the final Saturday of the college football season.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Penn State Nittany Lions
Despite boasting highly-touted quarterback Christian Hackenberg as their starter, Penn State never could get a competent passing game together in 2015. The Nittany Lions threw for slightly more than 200 yards a game, finishing 81st in the country. And despite having freshman sensation Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1000 yards despite missing over two games with an ankle injury, the run game ranked outside the top 100 in FBS. Success this season was dependent largely on how well the top-30 defense could contain opponents; when they allowed offenses to reach the red zone, they almost always walked away with points. At least Penn State was not prone to shoot itself in the foot, averaging just five penalties and 41 yards lost per game. If they can remain disciplined, and Barkley can gain momentum agains the Bulldog defense, the Nittany Lions can keep this one close.
A nine-win season wasn’t enough to save Mark Richt’s job in Athens, and so the Bulldogs will go bowling with receivers coach Bryan McClendon taking over as the interim leader before Kirby Smart arrives to take the full-time helm. Greyson Lambert offered little upside at quarterback, and Nick Chubb’s season-ending knee injury hampered a rushing attack that had to lean heavily on Sony Michel as a result. No team allowed fewer passing yards per game than the Bulldogs, though, and a top-10 defense was instrumental in having a shot at 10 wins for the fourth time in the past five years. Only Appalachian State had a better red zone defense, and Georgia whether facing first down or third down. Isaiah McKenzie helped flip the field on punt returns, ranking 16th in FBS in return average. If Georgia can rally around its gutted coaching staff, win number 10 will be in reach.
What is Likely to Happen
Georgia will arrive in Jacksonville as a 6.5-point favorite, but it remains to be seen how cohesively the Bulldogs perform against Penn State. The Nittany Lions will largely be able to key in on Michel, stacking the box and forcing Georgia to beat them through the air. If they are successful in executing that plan, Penn State could add to its 10 interceptions on the season. With Georgia’s defense struggling more against the run than the pass, the ingredients are in place for Saquon Barkley to have one more big game to start 2016, as the tailback boosts his stock for national awards entering the offseason before his sophomore season. In a low-scoring affair, Penn State will almost certainly beat the spread — and could win this one outright, especially if it comes down to the kicking games.
Penn State 19, Georgia 17
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