December 22, 2014

Despite missing out on the College Football Playoff after topping the first-ever such rankings, Mississippi State is giddy over being in the Orange Bowl.

The eighth-ranked Bulldogs go for arguably the most significant win in school history on New Year's Eve when they face No. 10 Georgia Tech, which wants to prove Paul Johnson's triple-option offense can be as dominant in a bowl game as it is during the regular season.

Whereas Johnson's team was never part of the playoff picture, Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen sounds just as happy - if not moreso - to be headed to this history-rich spectacle in Miami.

"We felt this was an unbelievable destination for us to go to," Mullen said. "If you went and asked all our players to what bowl game they wanted to go, this would be their No. 1 choice."

It's not a surprising statement considering Mississippi State (10-2) hasn't appeared in a more prominent postseason game over the past half century besides maybe the 1998 Cotton Bowl - a loss to Texas.

However, back in early November, Mullen's team was in prime position to play for much bigger stakes come bowl season, sitting atop the AP poll and the first Playoff Selection Committee rankings with a 9-0 record. The Bulldogs, though, would fall to current No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 15 and suffered a more devastating defeat to close the regular season, blowing their playoff hopes with a 31-17 loss to archrival Mississippi.

Their consolation prize is the program's third Orange Bowl appearance and first since 1941 - not bad for a team which began the season unranked.

"A lot of people wondered what we could do and accomplish," Mullen said. "It's an unbelievable reward for us to come and play in one of the most prestigious bowls there is with the historical ramifications of doing so."

Dak Prescott's Heisman Trophy hopes also went by the wayside late in the season, but the quarterback isn't complaining about where he or his team ended up.

"Look forward to play in that type of weather, and just for the hospitality to be in South Beach, to be in Miami. It's awesome," he said. "Like LeBron said, taking our talents down to South Beach."

While Prescott can do damage through the air and on the ground, counterpart Justin Thomas rarely throws for a Georgia Tech offense which ranked second nationally with 333.6 rushing yards per game and fourth with 41 rushing touchdowns. The Bulldogs allowed only 11.

Thomas ran for a team-leading 965 yards out of the triple-option while tailbacks Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days each topped 750. No Division I opponent held the Yellow Jackets (10-3) under 250 yards rushing, and only two kept them below 5.0 per carry.

"It's a different, tricky offense to go prepare for," Mullen said. "You don't see it very often. There's not a lot of carryover with other offenses that you play. ... Our defense has to learn how to fit against that offense."

Many defenses have been able to do just that with extra time to prepare. Georgia Tech is 1-5 in bowl games under Johnson, held to averages of 14.8 points and 317.3 total yards. His teams have averaged 33.2 points and 436.3 yards in the regular season.

The Yellow Jackets rushed for 331 yards, including 104 by Thomas, against second-ranked Florida State in the ACC championship game but lost 37-35.

That defeat didn't really have a negative impact. They were never in the playoff conversation after back-to-back losses in mid-October, yet they still ended up in one of the "New Year's Six" bowls - the one they wanted all along.

"This was one of our goals at the beginning of the year, to get to the Orange Bowl," said Johnson, the ACC coach of the year. "Normally you have to win our league championship game, but fortunately for us, like Mississippi State, the team that won our league is going to the playoffs. So we were able to get in the bowl and they're going to be ecstatic about it."

Like Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs seemingly need to run the ball effectively to win. They were held below 165 rushing yards and 4.0 per carry in only three games - their two losses and hardest-fought win, 17-10 over Arkansas.

Prescott totaled 46 carries against Alabama and Mississippi but was limited to 130 yards. He failed to crack the century mark in any of the final six games after doing so four times through the first six.

The junior still had the most prolific season ever by a Mississippi State quarterback with 10 school records, including 2,996 passing yards and 3,935 overall as well as 37 total touchdowns and 24 TD passes. Before deciding whether to head to the NFL, Prescott will try to help the Bulldogs reach 11 wins for the first time.

"Everybody knows about Dak Prescott and what he's done," Johnson said. "... Tremendous team, some outstanding individual players and a lot of respect for what they've done there."

Prescott and Josh Robinson, who rushed for 1,128 yards and 11 TDs, look to take advantage of a Yellow Jackets run defense which ranked 10th in the ACC (168.8 ypg).

Georgia Tech, though, did force three or more turnovers in six games.

"They're a good defense. They're fast, they cause a lot of turnovers," Prescott said. "... They're very disciplined, they get in the right spots."

The defensive star entering the game, however, is Bulldogs linebacker Benardrick McKinney. The second-team All-American will be focused squarely on slowing down Thomas.

McKinney helped Mississippi State rank 10th nationally with 19.4 points allowed per game, but that unit will be missing coordinator Geoff Collins, who was hired to take over Florida's defense.

The Bulldogs have won six of their past seven bowl games, going 3-1 under Mullen, but are 0-4 all-time against the Yellow Jackets.

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