WHEN MISSISSIPPI STATE RUNS THE BALL
Running back Josh Robinson or quarterback Dak Prescott? That’s the choice when you talk about the Bulldogs rush attack. Robinson and Prescott account for 68.3 percent of the Bulldogs runs and 71.8 percent of Mississippi State’s rushing yards. Robinson’s 6.37 yards per carry is second in the nation. To maintain that, they will have to control Second Team All-ACC defensive tackle Adam Gotsis and deal with numbers. As Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen noted, with cornerbacks Chris Milton and D.J. White, the Yellow Jackets can play man-to-man on the outside and devote everyone else to stopping the run. Works in theory. In actual games, Georgia Tech gives up 5.1 yards per carry, 5.6 once you subtract sacks.
Edge: Mississippi State
WHEN MISSISSIPPI STATE PASSES THE BALL
Prescott’s completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 2,996 yards and 24 touchdowns. But he’s also thrown 10 interceptions. Georgia Tech’s picked off 17 and returned five for touchdowns. Lurking in the secondary in addition to the aforementioned Milton and White is Third Team All-ACC safety Jamal Gordon, who tied White for the team lead with four interceptions. The Bulldogs spread their throws around the way ground-bound Georgia Tech spreads out carries. Six players have at least 22 receptions, led by De’Runnya Wilson’s 38. As is the case with Georgia Tech, if the run game isn’t working, don’t expect Mississippi State to turn into Air Starkville.
Edge: Georgia Tech
WHEN GEORGIA TECH RUNS THE BALL
Tech runs the triple option old-fashioned style, just like you used to see in the Orange Bowls of the 1970s and 1980s, but with some modernizing additions. No Power Five conference team runs the ball more than the Rambling Wreck. Part of the reason it works is nobody does it anymore, so defenses take a little more time to recognize the nuances. To compound the anachronistic look, Georgia Tech runs its triple option out of, among other formations, something akin to a Wing T and an offset I with motion by a flankerback. The Yellow Jackets get to the edges well, especially on pitch plays, and sophomore quarterback and leading rusher Justin Thomas does a good job hitting the seams. Don’t expect Mississippi State’s defense to stop the Tech just with vaunted SEC speed. No slowpokes wear Florida State jerseys, and Tech gashed FSU for 335 yards and 5.6 per carry in the ACC title game. Maintaining assignments and winning the one-on-ones, especially on the ends where First Team All-SEC defensive end Preston Smith works, will slow Tech.
EDGE: Georgia Tech
WHEN GEORGIA TECH PASSES THE BALL
When Tech throws the ball, play the numbers in the clock on the Cash 3 or Play 4. Or, do a shot. Don’t worry, you’ll end the game sober. Thomas averages only 13.5 passes per game, and Tech’s success throwing the ball runs congruent with their success running it. Leading receiver DeAndre Smelter (20.4 yards per catch and seven touchdowns) injured a knee against Georgia. Tech’s next two most productive wide receivers, Darren Waller and Michael Summers, have nine fewer combined receptions than Smelter, just over half Smelter’s yardage and average only 13.9 yards per catch. Tech’s the best third-down offense in the nation because it stays in third-and-run. Here’s three more reasons why Georgia Tech needs to stay out of must-pass situations: the Bulldogs rank 12th nationally in sacks, 26th in pass-efficiency defense, allow only 52.1 percent of passes completed, all leading to being 13th in third-down conversion defense.
Edge: Mississippi State.
Even the hardcore football geeks can use this game’s special teams plays as extra kitchen or toilet time. Neither side allows much on kickoff or punt returns (3.9 per opponents punt return, 23.2 average per kickoff return for Georgia Tech, 7.2 and 17.9 for Mississippi State). That’s fine because neither side gets much on kickoff or punt returns. Mississippi State blocked one punt, Georgia Tech blocked two. Tech had a field goal blocked. Bulldogs punter Devon Bell can claim greater average length than Yellow Jackets punter Ryan Rodwell by about 72 inches. Jackets kicker Harrison Butker gets touchbacks on 60.8 percent of his kickoffs, but five of his seven field goal misses are from 30 to 39 yards.
Before you get to the strategic matchups, there’s the basics of preparing a team for a bowl game. Both coaches know how to get their teams into bowl games. One seems a little better at getting his teams ready. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen coached the Bulldogs to bowls each of the past four years, losing only the Gator Bowl to Northwestern two years ago. Paul Johnson coached five Division I-AA (now FCS) playoff teams at Georgia Southern, winning two national titles. At the FBS level, Johnson got Navy to five bowls in six seasons and Georgia Tech to six in his first six years there. But he’s 3-7 in those bowl games (he didn’t coach the bowl game his last season at Navy, having accepted the Georgia Tech job) and 1-5 at Georgia Tech. As for who’s more adaptable, Johnson’s experience could give him the edge there but Mullen’s not exactly fresh off the farm.
Edge: Mississippi State