The Nittany Lions are still searching for a signature win – and the TaxSlayer Bowl will serve as their final chance.
Penn State has gone 0-5 against ranked opponents this season, and all but one of their wins has come against a non-winning FBS team. The lone exception? A 37-21 win over Group of 5 opponent San Diego State. Alumni are restless, and James Franklin already has fired his offensive coordinator.
Things aren’t any better over at Georgia. Head coach Mark Richt was fired for failing to meet high expectations, and wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon will serve as the interim coach. This will be the fourth interim coach Penn State faces this season.
Both struggling programs are trying to recapture past success here. The two schools are among the 11 winningest college football programs of all time, but neither has won a national championship since the 1980s. It’s only appropriate then that these teams’ only other meeting came in the 1983 Sugar Bowl, when the Nittany Lions won 27-23 to capture their first national title.
There’s a lot of history – and hope – between these teams. So here’s our first glance at the Jan. 2 meeting:
Most intriguing matchup: Georgia RB Sony Michel vs. Penn State front-seven. Even without preseason All-American Nick Chubb, who suffered torn ligaments in early October, the Bulldogs are still a run-first team that features a tailback with a 5.4 yards-per-carry average. (Michel is also third on Georgia in receiving with 25 catches for 270 yards.) The Nittany Lions’ front-seven will be tasked with getting in the backfield and disrupting Michel – and, by extension, the entire Georgia offense. But it won’t be easy. No team in the FBS is allowing fewer tackles for loss than the Bulldogs (3.42 TFLs per game). But, on the flip side, only five FBS defenses boast more tackles for loss than Penn State (8.1 TFLs per game). This should be an epic showdown in the trenches, and Michel’s performance should set the tone for Georgia one way or another. As a starter, Michel has had at least 90 rushing/receiving yards in all but one game. And that one game, a 27-3 loss to Florida, just happened to be the most lopsided loss while Michel was with the first-teamers. Stop Michel, stop Georgia.
Player on Penn State who could have a big game: Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. The Bulldogs have the nation’s top-rated pass defense, so Christian Hackenberg isn’t going to have an easy test in what could amount to his final college game. Luckily for Barkley (and Penn State), there’s definitely an opening for a big game. Georgia is allowing 3.97 yards per carry, and Barkley has faced just three defenses with worse numbers (Rutgers, Maryland, Illinois). Granted, 3.97 isn’t bad – but Penn State has played mostly solid run defenses. Barkley rushed for 194 yards against Ohio State, which so far this season has allowed just 3.35 ypc, and 120 yards against a Northwestern team with similar defensive numbers. Barkley has the potential to break out in any game, and he’ll be especially important against Georgia.
Keys to victory: Who’s going to score the first touchdown? Neither of these teams is ranked within the top 80 of scoring offense, and neither is exactly designed for a comeback. When their opponents score the first TD, Penn State and Georgia are a combined 1-6 this season. When they score the first touchdown? 14-2. Establishing a running game should also be paramount, considering both defenses are ranked within the top-10 of passing yards allowed.