No. 12 Michigan State (10-3) vs. No. 18 Georgia (10-3)
Jan. 2, 1 p.m ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch: Both the Bulldogs and Spartans may have come up empty in their respective conference championship games, but this is still an opportunity to see two of the nation’s best defenses in action. Michigan State allowed just a hair more than 272 yards per game in 2011, including only 250 yards to Michigan’s high-octane offense in the Spartans’ fourth consecutive win over the Wolverines. Georgia currently ranks No. 3 in the nation in total defense at 268.5 yards allowed per game, and held arch-rivals Tennessee and Florida to negative net rushing yards a couple months back. It’s also an opportunity to see which defensive scheme wins out: the Spartans’ 4-3 or the Bulldogs’ 3-4 front, which has made major strides under second-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
Keep an eye on: Georgia’s special teams, which was one of its few consistent strengths during a frustrating 2010 campaign but fell off markedly in 2011. Kicker Blair Walsh was just of 19-of-31 on field goals a year after hitting 20-of-23. Drew Butler remains one of the nation’s strongest punters, but saw his net punting average plummet from fourth in the nation to 96th thanks to a coverage unit that gave up numerous long returns, including touchdowns to Ole Miss’ Nick Brassell and LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in the SEC Championship Game. The Dawgs also allowed kickoff-return touchdowns to Vandy and Florida and a 68-yard fake-punt TD to 276-pound South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram. UGA’s kick coverage will have to get better in a hurry, as MSU’s Keshawn Martin and Nick Hill rank among the nation’s more dangerous return men; Martin took a punt to the house against Northwestern in the Spartans’ regular-season finale.
Did you know: Neither Georgia nor Michigan State has missed out on a bowl invite under their current head coaches, but Mark Richt is 7-3 in postseason games, while Mark Dantonio is 0-4 with an average margin of defeat of 17 points. The Spartans haven’t won a bowl game since defeating Fresno State in the 2001 Silicon Valley Classic.
Final analysis: Both teams are fairly evenly matched: The defenses are dominating, while the offenses, for the most part, have done just enough to get by. The Bulldogs have the edge in offensive talent, but that’s tempered by ongoing questions in the running game — as of this writing, freshman phenom Isaiah Crowell, who headlined a banner recruiting year for the Dawgs but has been nagged by injuries nearly all season, was conspicuous by his absence from the top of the depth chart. That spot is occupied by freshman Ken Malcome, who has only 123 yards on the season and nearly transferred a few months back. Quarterback Aaron Murray has had a fine sophomore season, but Richt would prefer for him not to have to shoulder the team’s entire load against a Spartan secondary ranked in the top 10 nationwide in pass-efficiency defense (or against a defensive front that’s already tallied 40 sacks in 2011). If the game comes down to motivation, the Bulldogs may have an edge: They’re anxious to put the cherry on top of a turnaround season in which they won their first SEC East title in six years (and may have saved Richt’s job), while the Spartans have to be on letdown alert after missing out on a Rose Bowl invite by just three heartbreaking points in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. If the game comes down to special teams and field position, though, Richt’s Dawgs could be in for a frustrating day.
The pick: Michigan State 24, Georgia 20