Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech run over Mississippi State in Orange Bowl
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson doesn’t hold a playcard on the sideline. His spread option offense doesn’t require too many funny names or diagrams, just a handful of different formations and plays. There are draws, sweeps, options and the rare pass play. If executed properly, the opposing defense has no idea where the ball is or who to tackle.
Just ask Mississippi State.
The Yellow Jackets concluded their best season under Johnson with a 49-34 win over the Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl, their 11th victory of the season and sixth in their last seven games. Quarterback Justin Thomas and running back Synjyn Days teamed up for 292 total yards rushing and six touchdowns.
Here are three thoughts about Georgia Tech’s dominant performance against Mississippi State.
1. It isn’t a gimmick
The Yellow Jackets only won 28 games between 2010-2013, calling into question the effectiveness of Johnson’s option attack. In the era of quick-strike passing offenses and “air raids,” the spread option looked antiquated. But under the leadership of Thomas, arguably the best quarterback that Johnson has had during his seven seasons in Atlanta, the offense has thrived. Georgia Tech finished third in the nation in total rushing this season, rolling up an astounding 333 yards per game and 6.05 yards per carry.
Thomas and Days provide a two-pronged attack that freezes and spreads out opposing defenses. If the ball isn’t in either of their hands, then it could be in Zach Laksey’s, who ran for 63 yards on Wednesday night and 788 during the regular season. And if the Yellow Jackets want to throw, they can do that too. Thomas’ 41-yard touchdown strike to Darren Waller proved that stacking the box to protect against the run isn’t a sound defensive strategy.
Sure, the opposition has access to Georgia Tech’s film. But nobody can equal its speed and deception on the field. Mississippi State finished the regular season with a top-25 run defense and tied for 7th with only 11 rushing touchdowns allowed. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Bulldogs were helpless.
2. A dark day in the Magnolia State
Mississippi State’s loss in the Egg Bowl to in-state rival Mississippi was the death knell for the chance of seeing a team from the Magnolia State make the College Football Playoff. When TCU demolished Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, one wondered if both Mississippi teams were a bit overrated after all. And after their disappointing performance on Wednesday night, the Bulldogs probably weren’t the team we thought they were (Is that you, Dennis Green?).
Rife with talent in quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Josh Robinson and linebacker Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State provided thrilling moments -- wins over LSU and Auburn -- for a fanbase starved for success. Whether or not Dan Mullen plans to remain in Starkville for the foreseeable future, he has proven himself to be one of the better head coaches in the nation.
But that didn’t make Wednesday any easier. Both highly regarded defenses entering the day, Mississippi and Mississippi State surrendered 91 points to two offenses from lesser conferences. Perhaps we shouldn’t put so much stock in “SEC defense.”
3. The best conference?
Regarded as the best division in football, the SEC West has struggled mightily in its bowl games. LSU couldn’t contain a reeling Notre Dame team, Ole Miss barely even arrived against TCU and Mississippi State looked unprepared for the Yellow Jackets’ offense. The transitive property is no way to evaluate teams, but Alabama’s marquee wins suddenly lack a little luster as the SEC struggles through bowl season.
Should it make you question your faith in Alabama? Maybe not. But is the SEC this year’s best conference? It certainly hasn’t been in this postseason.