The Capital One Orange Bowl has to wait until next season for its turn in the College Football Playoff, but this year’s New Year’s Eve showdown at Sun Life Stadium is no snoozer.
Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up and 12th-ranked Georgia Tech, which gave playoff-bound Florida State a fight to the finish in Saturday’s ACC title game, will take on at-large selection and seventh-ranked Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs (10-2) reached No.1 in The Associated Press poll for the first time in school history after a 9-0 start and have a chance to win 11 games for the first time in school history behind star quarterback Dak Prescott. As coach Paul Johnson pointed out Sunday night, Georgia Tech has a chance to win 11 games for only the fifth time in school history despite its rich tradition.
Both teams come in averaging more than 37 points a game. So there could be plenty of fireworks in South Florida before it hits midnight.
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“If you asked our players what bowl game they wanted to go this would be their No.1 choice,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, whose team came into this weekend ranked 10th, but jumped up three spots — ahead of Michigan State, which was also not playing in a conference championship — to earn its selection (the Orange selects the highest-ranked non-champion from either the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame).
“To be honest with you, I have no idea how [the committee] worked it all out,” Mullen continued. “With our strength of schedule, I was more surprised with where we were ranked last week, especially with some of the quality wins we have over Top 25-ranked teams — three wins over top-10 teams as compared to some other teams that jumped us. I know for us, we felt it was an unbelievable destination for us to go to.”
The Bulldogs haven’t played in the Orange Bowl since 1941 — when they beat Georgetown 14-7. This will be Georgia Tech’s seventh trip to the Orange Bowl and its first since it lost to Iowa 24-14 in 2010. But this is only the Yellow Jackets’ second trip to a major bowl game since 1967.
Finding motivation to win after Saturday’s 37-35 loss to the Seminoles in the ACC title game won’t be difficult, Johnson said.
“The one thing we’ve been able to count on every week is they play hard,” Johnson said. “This was one of our goals at the beginning of the year — to get into the Orange Bowl. ,you have to win the league championship game. Fortunately for us, [Florida State] is going to the playoffs. [Our players are] going to be ecstatic and excited. To have a chance to play a quality opponent, one that’s been ranked in the top 10 pretty much all year and No.1 in the poll, is going to be a huge challenge and one we’re looking forward to.”
Prescott, sixth nationally in total offense (327.9 yards per game), will be the feature star in the showdown. Mississippi State’s quarterback, a Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien Award finalist, nearly threw for 3,000 yards and rushed for nearly 1,000 while hanging in the Heisman Trophy race most of the season.
He is joined in the Bulldogs’ read-option attack by running back Josh Robinson, who ranks third in the SEC in both rushing yards (1,128) and rushing touchdowns (11). Defensively, Mississippi State ranks 10th in the in scoring defense (19.4 ppg). Defensive end Preston Smith leads the team with nine sacks, and linebacker Benardrick McKinney leads the team in tackles with 61 and fumble recoveries with three.
Quarterback Justin Thomas leads Georgia Tech’s vaunted spread-option attack that ranks third in the nation in rushing yards (333.6 ypg) and first in third down efficiency (57.0 percent). Thomas ranks fourth nationally among quarterbacks with 965 rushing yards to go along with his 17 passing touchdowns.
Senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy leads an opportunistic Georgia Tech defense that ranks second in the nation with six defensive touchdowns and 15th in turnover margin.
NEW BOWL GAMES
The Orange Bowl won’t be the only bowl game in South Florida later this month.
The Boca Raton Bowl, scheduled for a 6 p.m. kickoff on Dec. 23 at FAU Stadium, has the sexier matchup with Conference USA champion Marshall (12-1) taking on MAC champion Northern Illinois (11-2).
The Thundering Herd are led by former Miami Central star and standout quarterback Rakeem Cato, who holds the NCAA FBS record for most consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass (46) and has thrown for 3,622 yards.
The Huskies, winners of three MAC titles in the past four years, have won 11 games in five consecutive seasons. Quarterback Drew Hare leads the Huskies’ offense with 2,097 passing yards and 17 touchdowns.
The Miami Beach Bowl, scheduled for a noon kickoff on Dec.22 at Marlins Park, pits BYU (8-4) against American Athletic Conference co-champion Memphis (9-3).
BYU heads into the postseason contest on a four-game winning streak. Memphis is on a six-game winning streak. The Tigers outscored their competition by an average of 35.7 to 13.3 in the second half of the season.