There might be some modern twists here and there, but Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl (11 a.m. ET, ESPN) will have a decidedly old-school feel. It’s nearly impossible to match two Power 5 teams that run the ball more often than Georgia Tech (8-4) and Kentucky (7-5).
Just don’t expect those ground attacks to look especially similar.
It should come as no surprise that Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense runs more frequently than any Power 5 offense, keeping the ball on the ground 77.1 percent of the time -- No. 5 among all FBS teams, according to ESPN Stats & Information reesearch.
However, Kentucky is not far behind. The Wildcats have become a run-heavy team since Stephen Johnson took over for the injured Drew Barker at quarterback early in the season. Mark Stoops’ troops have run the ball 62.1 percent of the time this season, which ranks 13th among all FBS teams and fifth in the Power 5.
They’re both unique in their own way. Nearly every Georgia Tech opponent during the regular season complains about the difficulty in preparing for an offensive style that has nearly disappeared from modern college football. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson has been rolling up huge yardage totals for years at Georgia Southern, Navy and now on the Flats.
Unlike in the regular season, though, Kentucky has had several weeks -- not several days -- to prepare for the cut blocks and misdirection that make the option so difficult to defend and they believe that was enough time to sufficiently prepare.
“We have to be extremely disciplined,” Stoops told reporters at Friday’s bowl press conference. “Coach Johnson has been around a long time. They can throw a lot at you. That's probably very easy to them. Different formations, unbalanced, different motions, they have everything under the sun with the triple option and other plays. They put a lot of stress on you.
“[Three weeks of preparation] definitely helps. Like I said, I don't think it makes it much easier. I think we have to be very fundamental, we have to stay on our feet, we can't get chopped, can't get cut.
The extra preparation time has seemed to help Georgia Tech’s bowl opponents in the past. In seven bowl games under Johnson, the Yellow Jackets have scored more than 21 points just twice.
But can a Kentucky defense that ranks 108th nationally against the run (225 ypg) continue that trend?
“I feel like we're prepared,” Kentucky defensive lineman Courtney Miggins said. “It's been three weeks. Scout team has been giving us a good look. Few missed assignments, but pretty much everybody been on the same page. I think we're ready to tee it up.”
Maybe it’s not an option attack, but Kentucky’s offense will have some tricks up its sleeve as well. Running out of the Wildcat and an assortment of other formations, Eddie Gran’s transformed offense developed into one of the SEC’s top rushing units.
It certainly helps that the Wildcats have an enticing mixture of thunder and lightning with powerful freshman Benny Snell (1,057 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) and versatile veterans Stanley “Boom” Williams (1,135 yards, 7 TDs) and Jojo Kemp (321 yards, 6 TDs).
“I know it takes a lot of pressure off me having Benny, Boom and Jo back there be able to get hit at the line of scrimmage and get a first down still -- really helps out our offense,” Johnson said. “It allows us to do so many things.”
Even when the Wildcats pass, it’s frequently much like a run. Roughly a quarter of Johnson’s pass attempts (24.2 percent) cover either zero air yards from the line of scrimmage or are backward passes.
The bottom line is that Gran had to find another way to move the ball after dropback passer Barker went down for the season in Week 3. What he discovered was that his improved offensive line, mobile quarterback and deep backfield could run the ball as well as nearly any team they’ve faced.
They haven’t faced Georgia Tech yet, though. Whoever handles the run better in this one will almost certainly walk away with a win.