Penn State (7-5) vs. Georgia (9-3)
Jan. 2, 12:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch
Because you truly, deeply care about defensive football. Georgia finished the regular season ranked 8th in the country in total defense; Penn State landed at No. 14. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs averaged 15.8 points over their final six games and the Nittany Lions fired their offensive coordinator after ranking 106th in total offense.
The coaching changes on both sides will undercut any chance to develop real offensive consistency between the end of the season and the new year. So, focus on the defensive talent instead. There is All-America defensive end Carl Nassib (15.5 sacks) anchoring a formidable Penn State line. There is Georgia’s All-SEC sophomore cornerback, Dominick Sanders (five interceptions), who should be a key building block for new coach Kirby Smart’s defense.
Keep an eye on: Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg
And, really, what else is new? The 6’4” junior was long hailed as a prototype NFL signal-caller in wait, until a season of so-so numbers (53.3 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns) in a bad offense prompted questions of how far along he was. Is the leaky offensive line the problem? Is the play-calling undermining everything? Or is Hackenberg simply in need of much more seasoning? Definitive answers might be hard to come by, given that new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead won’t run the show against Georgia. Still, Hackenberg can finish his season on a positive note against a formidable defense. If he struggles, then everyone can start dreaming about how Moorhead, whose offense at Fordham averaged 36.8 points per game in 2015, might fix what’s broken in 2016.
Did you know…?
Georgia was among the most difficult teams to throw the ball on in 2015. The Bulldogs allowed just nine passing touchdowns all season; only four teams yielded fewer than that. And no one in the country allowed less than the Bulldogs’ 1,753 yards through the air. That made for the 8th-best pass efficiency defense (102.96) in then nation. The only question is whether the group can maintain its level of consistency with head coach Mark Richt departed to Miami and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt already directing Alabama’s defense.
It’s incredibly difficult to gauge the dynamics here. The Bulldogs won four straight to end 2015, but that included three Power 5 teams that didn’t have winning records. The Nittany Lions lost three straight to end 2015, but they were defeated by 10-win Northwestern, nine-win Michigan and College Football Playoff participant Michigan State. Georgia has a talent advantage but a massive leadership vacuum on the sideline. Penn State has continuity, for the most part, but after a humdrum season, is that a good thing?
It won’t be the most exciting game of the bowl season, with the winner likely playing the soundest defense and finding a way to establish efficiency on the ground via one of the two 1,000-yard rushers in the contest: Georgia’s Sony Michel and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. We’ll give James Franklin’s team a very slight edge for having a clear purpose to build toward 2016, while everyone in Athens is following recruiting reports and rumors, waiting for this to be done so the Kirby Smart era can begin in full.