Sun Life Stadium has served as home to mediocre, underachieving football for the past five months.
On Wednesday night, it will finally get a reprieve.
No.8 Mississippi State (10-2) and No.10 Georgia Tech (10-3), two classic overachievers, will go after a rare 11th victory when the 81st Orange Bowl, sponsored by Capital One, kicks off after 8 p.m.
“I think you have two programs that really believe in their systems,” Mississippi State Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said Tuesday morning. “You know, [they] believe in what they do.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
And this year they’ve made believers of everyone else.
The Bulldogs, picked to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division in the preseason, transformed sleepy Starkville into Stark Vegas this season. They shattered 22 single-season records — 10 alone by star quarterback Dak Prescott — and became the fastest team ever in college football to go from unranked to No.1 — a span of five weeks.
Georgia Tech, picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division in July, ran ACC Coach of the Year Paul Johnson’s spread-option offense to near perfection en route to only the program’s fourth 10-win season since 1990. As the billboards in Atlanta suggest, together the Yellow Jackets swarmed.
Neither team was built with highly touted recruiting classes (Mississippi State’s past five classes ranked 37th, 26th, 30th, 44th and 38th by Rivals; Georgia Tech’s ranked 47th, 85th, 57th, 41st and 43rd). And neither is loaded with NFL Draft prospects (Mississippi State’s Prescott and linebacker Benardrick McKinney are the only top 100 prospects, according to NFLDraftScout.com.)
But now both are here, ready to end dreamy seasons on the right note. Mississippi State, losers of back-to-back games at Alabama and rival Mississippi in its past two games, won its last Orange Bowl game in 1941 and has never won 11 games in a season.
Georgia Tech, which lost to Iowa here in 2009 and is coming off a hard-fought 37-35 loss to Florida State in the ACC title game, last won the Orange in 1951. That was the first time the program won 11 games in a season, and the Yellow Jackets have accomplished that only three times since.
“People who think winning is easy probably aren’t in the business,” Johnson responded Tuesday when asked if he was surprised how the hometown Miami Hurricanes — one of his ACC Coastal Division rivals — finished 6-7. “Because if you’ve coached long enough, [you know] you’ve got to have the right chemistry, you’ve got to have the right mix, and it’s hard to win games.”
Georgia Tech found a better winning formula this season with sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas under center. Thomas, who needs just 35 yards to become only the second Georgia Tech quarterback to rush for 1,000 in a season, took over the starting job when Vad Lee left the program 12 months ago for a more passer-friendly James Madison team.
A shotgun spread offense passer in high school, Thomas bought into Johnson’s run, run, run mentality. Georgia Tech ranks second in rushing (333.6 yards) and third in time of possession (34:02). It wants to chew the clock Wednesday night, hush the cowbell ringing and keep Mississippi State’s ninth-ranked offense (506.2 yards) and 14th-ranked scoring offense (37.2 points) led by “Dakman and Robin” (Prescott and 5-9, 215-pound running back Josh Robinson) off the field.
The Bulldogs, listed as 61/2 point favorites in Las Vegas (they are much bigger favorites in Stark Vegas), own the nation’s 13th-best third-down defense (33 percent) and best red-zone defense (60 percent). Georgia Tech leads the country in third-down conversions (57 percent) but ranks 86th in red-zone offense (79 percent).
“It’s all assignment football — you’ve got to really be disciplined, and you’ve got to play with good eyes,” said Bulldogs safety and co-captain Jay Hughes, one of 15 seniors who were part of Mullen’s first full recruiting class in 2010 after coming over from Florida six years ago.
“I mean, it’s really all going to boil down to who’s going to make the first mistake, who’s going to make plays, who’s going to carry out their assignments well.”
Georgia Tech’s defense has been one of the most opportunistic in the country this season, ranking 16th in turnovers gained (27) and tied for second with six defensive touchdowns. It has been bad, though, on third down (115th) and has produced just 12 sacks (108th) and knows containing Prescott won’t be easy.
He’s one of only two players in the past seven seasons — Johnny Manziel being the other — to average 240 passing yards and 75 yards rushing a game.
“The guy is 6-2, 235, he’s a big quarterback, and he’s a triple-threat quarterback, too,” Tech linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “We’re going to have to keep him in the pocket and get a lot of defenders to him when we tackle him.”
Both teams have spent their free time in South Florida over the last four days riding jet skis, bowling, playing video games at Dave and Busters, visiting children at Joe DiMaggio and Baptist Hospitals and scoping the clubs on South Beach and Ocean Drive.
But now it’s time for business.
“One in four teams out of 120-plus years at Georgia Tech, to go 11 games, win 11 games, would be a great deal,” Nealy said. “And I definitely want to make history.”