Mississippi State (10-2) vs. Georgia Tech (10-3)
Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
For a few spellbinding weeks, Mississippi State was at the top of the college football world. The Bulldogs started 9-0 and climbed all the way up to No. 1 in the playoff rankings heading into a Nov. 15 date with Alabama.
A 19-3 halftime deficit turned into a more respectable five-point loss in Tuscaloosa, but the damage was done. Mississippi State ultimately missed out on a chance to win the SEC title and then dropped its season finale to Ole Miss, crushing any chance of the Bulldogs giving the conference two teams in the playoff, a scenario everyone (jokingly or not) discussed back in early October.
So what to make of the Bulldogs heading into the Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech? The Yellow Jackets also caught the Almost Bug by just missing an opportunity to hand Florida State its first loss when they fell 37-35 in the ACC championship in Charlotte.
For both teams, an 11th win would mean an awful lot. Granted, it’s not as prestigious as a playoff bid, but it’s a chance to show the world just how good their programs really are.
Points of interest
1. Dak Attack®™: Think back to all those midseason predictions. Halfway through the season Dak Prescott seemed to be at least a lock for an invite to New York, if not the Heisman frontrunner, as the Bulldogs got out to a 6-0 start with wins over LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. Prescott amassed five total touchdowns (two passing, three rushing) and completed 20 of 26 passes against the Aggies and was drawing comparisons to another Dan Mullen-coached quarterback in Tim Tebow.
Then reality set in somewhat. Prescott’s completion percentage dipped to 60.8 in the final six games of the regular season and he threw three picks against Alabama. After rushing for 100 or more yards in four of the team’s first six games, he didn’t hit the century mark once in the second half of the year.
Prescott’s season was still really good overall. He had 2,996 passing yards, 939 rushing yards and 37 total touchdowns, and he’ll pose a serious challenge to Georgia Tech’s defense with his ability to run inside the tackles, break a play with his legs and hit the home run ball.
2. Opportunistic Jackets: Only one team in the country (Washington) had more defensive touchdowns than Georgia Tech this season. The Yellow Jackets got six scores on the defensive side of the ball, tied with Kentucky, Temple and FIU for second-most, with five of them coming from the secondary.
Big plays from the defense contributed to wins over Pittsburgh (where the Panthers fumbled on their first five possessions), NC State, Clemson and Georgia down the stretch as Georgia Tech won its last five games of the season to get to 10-2 and earn a trip to the ACC title game. Against Mississippi State, don’t be surprised if the Jackets come down with a tipped pass or grab a fumble that could really change the game.
3. Trust the Bowling Ball: Josh Robinson, Mississippi State’s junior running back, got out to a hot start, piling up 887 rushing yards in the first seven games of the season. But he cooled off significantly down the stretch, failing to reach 100 yards on the ground in any of the team’s final five contests. Robinson did get some work in the passing game, catching six passes for 110 yards against Arkansas and putting up 69 receiving yards against the Crimson Tide.
After watching Dalvin Cook go for 177 yards and a score against the Yellow Jackets in Charlotte, the Bulldogs have to feel good about their chances to get the Bowling Ball involved early and often. Robinson uses his low center of gravity to plow through would-be tacklers and bounce off piles, and if he can establish the running game early, it’d make things a lot easier on Prescott as he seeks to open up the offense.
Georgia Tech allowed 168.8 yards per game on the ground on 5.1 yards per carry, so the opportunity is there. It’s up to the Bulldogs to exploit it.
Can Justin Thomas find a go-to receiver in Miami? The Yellow Jackets suffered a big loss heading into the ACC championship game against Florida State as top receiver DeAndre Smelter tore his ACL in the first half of the Georgia game. While the passing game is not a major focal point of Georgia Tech’s attack, quarterback Justin Thomas did a good job of finding Smelter at critical moments and making teams pay.
The 6-foot-3 Smelter had 715 yards and seven scores; the next leading receiver, Darren Waller, has just 328 yards. Only three receivers have caught 10 or more balls for the Yellow Jackets this season.
Mississippi State DE Preston Smith: Stopping the option takes patience and discipline, and maintaining gap control will be critical if the Bulldogs hope to slow down Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve. Good thing Mississippi State has Smith, a first-team All-SEC player who had nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss on the year.
336.3: The number of rushing yards per game the Yellow Jackets average, good for third in the nation. To those who still think Paul Johnson’s option attack is a gimmick or won’t work against power programs, maybe it’s time to get a new schtick.
While this game isn’t getting quite the attention that even the Peach Bowl is with its matchup between Ole Miss and TCU in Atlanta, the Orange Bowl presents plenty of enticing reasons to watch. Prescott received his draft grade before Christmas and is still undecided on whether or not he will jump to the NFL, but if this really is the last time fans get to see him play under Mullen, it’s a heck of an opportunity to go out on top. In any event, a win would be a great way to cap what was already a memorable season for the Bulldogs.
As for the Yellow Jackets, they always seem motivated to prove people wrong, and this is yet another opportunity to showcase what they can do on a national stage against the big, bad SEC. The ACC still gets Rodney Dangerfielded at every turn ("No respect!"), but a Georgia Tech win could help to change that perception a little bit.
Georgia Tech 31, Mississippi State 28