Dec. 8, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Paul Johnson and his team will wrap up their season right where they wanted to, in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve, even though Georgia Tech’s route to near South Beach turned crooked at the end.
The Yellow Jackets (10-3) will play Mississippi State (10-2), and Tech will look to go 5-0 against the Bulldogs as Johnson will seek to push his record as the Jackets’ head coach to 3-0 against MSU.
“It’s one of the goals of our program to get to the Orange Bowl every year,” Tech’s head coach said on a Sunday teleconference featuring the coaches of each squad. “Everybody here in Atlanta and Georgia Tech . . . is excited about this opportunity.”
Under the new playoff/bowl format, the ACC champion is still ticketed for an Orange Bowl berth, but the Jackets fell just short of that Saturday in Charlotte after falling 37-35 to Florida State in the conference championship game.
The defending national champion Seminoles (13-0) drew a spot in the new four-team, College Football Playoff opposite Oregon, however, and new guidelines call for the ACC’s next highest (by the CFP rankings) to stand in for the champs opposite the highest-ranked non-champion team from the SEC, Big 10 or Notre Dame.
Tech is ranked No. 12, and No. 7 Mississippi State is that team.
When last they met, the Jackets beat the Bulldogs 42-31 on Oct. 3, 2009, in Starkville, Miss., on a career passing night by former Tech QB Josh Nesbitt.
That was Johnson’s second year on The Flats and would become an ACC Championship season for the Jackets, who went on to lose to Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
“Normally, you have to win our league championship game,” Johnson said. “Fortunately, like Mississippi State, the team that won our league is going to the Playoffs.”
Like the Jackets, the Bulldogs began the season unranked, and came to harbor playoff dreams as they jumped out 9-0, including consecutive wins over then No. 8-ranked LSU, then No. 6 Texas A&M, and then No. 2 Auburn.
That run pushed them to a No. 1 national ranking.
Dan Mullen became MSU’s coach in 2009, one season after the Jackets beat the Bulldogs 38-7 in Bobby Dodd Stadium. He remembers well Tech’s unique offense.
He and his players would rather forget dropping two of their final three games, at Alabama and at in-state rival Ole Miss, to slip out of the CFP derby. Their pending trip south is quite a consolation prize; the Bulldogs haven’t played in the Orange Bowl since 1941.
“To know that we’re going to be the game that’s on, that everybody is going to be watching on TV [on New Year’s Eve], is very exciting,” Mullen said. “If you were to go and ask our players, this would have been their No. 1 choice.”
The Bulldogs have some players.
Quarterback Dak Prescott was a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate well into November.
The junior has passed for 2,996 yards and 24 touchdowns, and run for another 939 yards and 13 more scores. The big guy – he’s 6-feet-2, 235 pounds – would be quite a fit in Johnson’s offense, actually, having rushed for more than 100 yards in four games.
“We don’t know a whole lot [about MSU] other than I’ve had the opportunity to watch them play a couple times this season and been impressed,” Johnson said. “Everybody knows about Dak Prescott, and I know they were ranked No. 1 in the country for a few weeks.
“As the days move along, we’ll move further and further into trying to break down what they do.”
The Jackets will be off until Thursday this week, tending instead for finals.
When they resume the practice of football, the Jackets will prepare to face one of the nation’s stingiest scoring defenses. Mississippi State is No. 10 nationally in points allowed (19.4) per game.
Tech went toe-to-toe with the Seminoles, closing to within a couple points at the wane only to see FSU recover an onsides kick late to salt away the game.
The Jackets have a chance to become just the fifth team in school history to win 11 or 12 games, and Johnson doesn’t believe the FSU game will impact his team’s ambition heading to the Orange Bowl.
“I don’t think so. Our kids have been really resilient all year,” he said. “The one thing that we have been able to count on is the effort, and that they’ll play hard. For us to put the exclamation point on a great year . . . you’d like to have that win to springboard into the next season and spring football.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge, and I’m sure Mississippi State wants to win 11 games just as much as we do.”
Mullen verified that.
“Obviously, we’d love to finish it off with a win,” the MSU coach said. “You don’t want to leave with a bad taste . . . you don’t get to play for nine months.”