Outback Bowl: #12 MSU (10-3, 7-1 Big 10 Legends) vs. #18 Georgia (10-3, 7-1 SEC East)

OUTBACK!

For the first time 1987, Michigan St. finished with the Big 10’s best regular-season record. Under the old conference alignment, this would’ve earned Sparty a trip to the Rose Bowl. Alas, Nebraska joined the party and the conference was split into two woefully-named divisions, the Leaders and Legends. Despite being placed in what I believe is the tougher division, the Legends, with in-state rival Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa and the sneaky Northwestern, Sparty went 4-1 within their own division, losing only to Nebraska.

Senior QB Kirk Cousins still had some problems on the road, but will finish his career as the winningest QB in school history. Fellow senior, WR B.J. Cunningham is the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards and should be an early-round draft pick. RB Edwin Baker started the season, but Le’Veon Bell surely finished it, averaging close to 95 yards per game and 6 yards per carry over Sparty’s last 5 contests, which included 4 wins and the lone loss coming in the inaugural conference title game. First-team All-American DT Jerel Worthy anchored one of the best front fours in the entire country and was a key cog in a defensive scheme that caused its opposition fits nearly all season.

I wrote a while ago about today’s Outback Bowl matchup, pitting the Spartans against the SEC’s Georgia Bulldogs. Neither team has played since the first week of December, and both are coming off disappointing ends to their seasons. While Sparty lost a 42-39 heartbreaker to the Wisconsin Badgers, Georgia was absolutely trashed by the country’s top-ranked LSU Tigers, 42-10. While I don’t watch an awful lot of SEC football, I can assure you that the final score of that game was more an indicator of just how good LSU is, and not how terrible Georgia is. Regardless, both teams are more than smarting after being one win away from being asked to the BCS dance and I believe they’ll both want this win to not only erase the sour taste from their mouths, but send poll voters a message that they should not be counted out for the upcoming 2012 FBS season.

For the nerdbirds (national statistical rankings in parentheses):

Michigan St. 

Total Offense: 390.4 ypg (59), Passing Offense: 255.1 ypg (49), Rushing Offense: 142.9 ypg (77), Scoring: 30.8 ppg (37)

Total Defense: 272.7 ypg (5), Passing Defense: 168.4 ypg (11), Rushing Defense: 104.3 ypg (12), Scoring: 17.5 ppg (9)

Georgia

Total Offense: 413.8 ypg (39), Passing Offense: 255.4 ypg (48), Rushing Offense: 172.7 ypg (41), Scoring: 32.2 ppg (33)

Total Defense: 268.5 ypg (3), Passing Defense: 165.1 ypg (7), Rushing Defense: 103.4 ypg (11), Scoring: 19.6 ppg (16)

Key Spartans:

QB Kirk Cousins: 3,016 YDS, 24 TD, 7 INT, 65 CMP%, 151.4 RAT

RB Le’Veon Bell: 165 CAR, 900 YDS, 11 TD

WR B.J. Cunningham: 72 REC, 1,240 YDS, 12 TD

DT Jerel Worthy: 25 TK, 8 TFL, 3.5 SK

Key Bulldogs:

QB Aaron Murray: 2,861 YDS, 33 TD, 12 INT, 58.7 CMP%, 146.4 RAT

RB Isaiah Crowell: 182 CAR, 847 YDS, 5 TD

WR Malcolm Mitchell: 38 REC, 614 YDS, 4 TD

LB Jarvis Jones: 69 TK, 19.5 TFL, 13.5 SK

While Georgia’s offense is slightly better than Sparty’s, their defenses are fairly similar. Both units are extremely stingy and their defensive lines cause all sorts of havoc. Sparty and Georgia have defenses that are nationally top-20 in both sacks and interceptions, with the latter figure showing that while the front four for both teams certainly get the job done, there is definitely some exceptional talent in the secondary as well. It will be interesting to see how each team’s offensive line handles 1st-team All-Americans Worthy and Jones, as each player is essentially a one-man wrecking crew.

It should be encouraging to Sparty fans that Georgia struggled so mightily against LSU’s defense. Not saying that Sparty’s defense is on the same level as LSU’s, but a pretty good Bulldog offense completely fell apart after jumping out to a 10-0 lead after one quarter. LSU scored 42 unanswered points and Georgia finished the game with season lows in points, rushing yards and total yards. While LSU didn’t exactly resemble an offensive powerhouse in that game, it didn’t matter one bit. Georgia’s offense was stifled for the remaining three quarters and despite having the ball for a little over 36 minutes, couldn’t do much with it when it mattered most. Cousins and Co. were actually great in the Big 10 title game against a pretty good Wisconsin defense, but a failure to get key stops and committing the most ill-timed roughing the kicker penalty in college football history doomed Sparty’s chances to land a berth in the Rose Bowl. Yes, Georgia has one of the elite run defenses in the land, but I’m not sure if they’ve yet faced a RB duo like Bell and Baker, plus 3rd-string bruising back Larry Capers. If Sparty’s O has early problems, you can bet that head coach Mark Dantonio will reach into his bag of tricks to try to put points on the board. However, I doubt Dantonio will have to go to those lengths because Sparty’s offense has averaged 38.6 points and 433.2 yards over their last 5 games.

Sparty will be going for their first bowl win under Dantonio, as they have lost their last 4 bowl games. Their last bowl win came in the Silicon Valley Classic against Fresno St. in 2001, 44-35. I was a sophomore in high school and my only thoughts of college were how many girls I’d have in my dorm room on a daily basis, to give you some unnecessary historical context. Georgia and Sparty have played in a bowl game before, the 1989 Gator Bowl. Georgia won, 34-27. I was 3 and enjoyed having no responsibilities, to give you a little bit more unnecessary historical context.

This should be the best non-BCS matchup of them all, and I don’t say that just because my alma mater is appearing in it. These two teams are evenly matched, with strong defenses leading the way while above-average/good offenses chip in with necessary production. Hell, both head coaches have the first name “Mark”, to boot.

I think Sparty wins this game because they feel they have more to play for, especially after last year’s Capital One Bowl blowout loss to a peeved Alabama. In addition, seniors Cousins and Cunningham want more than anything to end their collegiate careers as winners, and a bowl win on top of a win over Michigan and Ohio St. in the same season would be a sublime ending to a highly successful four-year period in East Lansing.

MSU wins, 24-17.

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