Georgia has a makeshift, ramshackle coaching staff and a lineup that would just as soon forget that 2015 happened. Penn State is in Year 3 of a total offensive rebuild, is in-between offensive coordinators, and is preparing for life without a blue-chip quarterback who could probably use another year in school but likely won't choose to return.
1. Motivation and Georgia, strangers in the night
The interim coach has even found a new job. When the TaxSlayer Bowl ends, Bryan McClendon will remove his black/red Georgia pullover and don a black/red South Carolina pullover; he's already been selected as Will Muschamp's offensive co-coordinator and receivers coach.
But interims and new jobs are de rigueur for Georgia for the moment. Mark Richt was fired after the Bulldogs' final regular season game, and while it was originally decided that he would coach the bowl game, he elected to go ahead and leave when Miami hired him as its new head coach. The 32-year old McClendon is sticking around for the final game; other assistants aren't. The rumor that senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell is serving as interim receivers coach proved untrue.
(Okay, I made that last part up.)
So a patchwork staff will lead a disappointed team onto the field in Jacksonville. That leads to the obvious questions: how much does Georgia want to be here? And will this sort of turnover result in an egg-laying of massive proportion or a relaxed, trick-play-heavy "let's go have some fun" performance? We all assume the former, but the latter comes about sometimes. And a relaxed, happy-go-lucky team with Georgia's athleticism could put on a pretty enjoyable performance.
For pure entertainment's sake, I'm trying to talk myself into the latter as a realistic scenario. But "fun" would go against just about everything we've seen from Georgia in 2015. This season has been a chore.
- Quarterback Greyson Lambert's early-season magnificence (remember when he completed 33 of 35 passes against South Carolina and Southern?) turned out to be a mirage; he would top a middling passer rating of 118 just once in five games as Georgia fell from 4-0 to 5-3.
- In a desperate search for a spark, Georgia would also ask Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta to take their shots at QB; the duo would combine to complete 53 percent of their passes with one touchdown and six interceptions.
- After rushing for 745 yards and seven touchdowns in five games, wonderful sophomore running back Nick Chubb was lost for the season with a knee injury, continuing the years-long cavalcade of ill-timed, long-term injuries for Georgia skill position players.
- Chubb's replacement, sophomore Sony Michel, proved explosive but inefficient -- only 33 percent of his carries gained at least five yards, compared to Chubb's 47 percent.
- First-year offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, questioned by many from the day he took the job (fans of his previous employer, the St. Louis Rams, didn't exactly seem shaken up by his departure), proved to have little in the way of a Plan B when the "hand to Chubb and throw short passes" approach fell apart. Somehow Georgia, with immense raw athleticism despite injuries, fell all the way to 73rd in Off. S&P+
It's never too late to have fun, I guess. But that would be a first for the Dawgs this year.
2. Penn State certainly has more to play for
Georgia actually played reasonably well down the stretch while fighting for its head coach's job. After a depressing 27-3 loss to Florida, the Dawgs beat Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech to finish 9-3. Granted, only the Kentucky win came by an impressive margin (the other three came by a combined 19 points, and Georgia Southern went to OT), but they still got the job done. And Richt still got fired.
Penn State's team isn't fighting for James Franklin's job yet, but the pressure is building as a second-straight mediocre season comes to an end. With NCAA sanctions in the rear view and recruiting doing well enough, Penn State managed to combine looking decent on paper and looking frequently iffy on the field. The Nittany Lions looked good to great at times -- they beat Rutgers, Indiana, and Illinois by a combined 96-10, and only one of those three teams was awful. They survived upset bids against Buffalo, Army, and Maryland, and only one of their five losses came against a team ranked outside of the S&P+ top 40 (No. 45 Northwestern).
But last year's problems were this year's problems. The defense was again strong -- 16th in Def. S&P+, fourth in Passing Downs S&P+ -- but the PSU offense was far less than the sum of its parts.
PSU ranked 56th in Off. S&P+, producing a heavy load of big plays (mostly from running backs Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch and receiver Chris Godwin) and almost no efficiency. The offensive line still struggled (120th in power success rate, 119th in stuff rate, 122nd in standard downs sack rate, 105th in passing downs sack rate), and even when he had time, junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg continued to show the ability to make tough throws and screw up easier ones. And while Franklin has made a change at offensive coordinator -- John Donovan was shown the door and replaced by Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead -- that change probably won't have much of an impact in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Hackenberg threw only five interceptions but completed just 53 percent of his passes; PSU ranked just 81st in Passing S&P+. The assumption is that Hackenberg will still announce his intention to head to the NFL, and some NFL team will talk itself into him because of raw arm potential. But he's not ready.
If Hackenberg puts on a show like he did in last year's Pinstripe Bowl, and if Bob Shoop's defense harasses Greyson Lambert (or Georgia's QB of choice), then the Nittany Lions could finish the season on a somewhat happy note. But while the latter is somewhat assured, the former is far from it.
3. Key Stat: Success rate
Check out the monstrous stat preview here.
Spread: Georgia -7
S&P+ Projection: Penn State 24.8, Georgia 23.6
Team Sites: Black Shoe Diaries, Dawg Sports
|Category||Penn State offense||Georgia defense||Georgia offense||Penn State defense|
|EXPLOSIVENESS||1.39 (15)||1.26 (71)||1.27 (60)||1.15 (20)|
|EFFICIENCY||36.9% (110)||32.4% (4)||42.9% (52)||38.3% (37)|
Penn State's best offensive players (Barkley, Godwin) are a freshman and sophomore, respectively, which brings to the table a certain amount of inconsistency from the start. Add in a faulty line and scattershot quarterback, and you've got a recipe for inefficiency. Indeed, Penn State had one of the worst success rates in the power conference universe. Meanwhile, Georgia's defense was willing to risk big plays for extreme efficiency, a gamble that frequently paid off.
On the other side of the ball, Georgia's inefficiencies weren't as pronounced, but the Dawgs were still mediocre in this regard.
There are two ways to look at the efficiency-vs.-explosiveness balance in this game. In theory, the offense that is actually able to establish some efficiency, therefore avoiding passing downs disasters, could render a solid advantage. But with Penn State's big-play potential and the potential for a "screw it, it's a bowl game" trickeration, this could go in the opposite direction. We could end up with two inefficient offenses in a game decided by who generates five big plays instead of three.