TaxSlayer Bowl preview: Penn State vs. Georgia

Saturday's TaxSlayer Bowl between Penn State and Georgia features four missing coaches, two stout defenses and possibly Christian Hackenberg's final college game. How much more intrigue do you need?

This isn't set up to be a shootout, as both teams boast top-15 defenses. But there's still plenty to watch here. Georgia fired head coach Mark Richt, the second-winningest coach in school history, and both coordinators have also left. At Penn State, offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired after two seasons with little improvement.

On top of that, Hackenberg might be playing in his final Penn State game, as he could soon declare for the 2016 NFL draft. He already leads Penn State in career passing yards (8,318) and touchdowns (48), so he's just looking to extend his numbers.

There's a lot to digest in this matchup, so SEC reporter Edward Aschoff and Big Ten reporter Josh Moyer are here to break it down:

How Georgia wins: With the issues Georgia has had at quarterback, the Bulldogs’ best chance of beating this salty Penn State defense is to run the ball with authority. Clearly, that’s a little tougher for this team when you consider that star running back Nick Chubb was lost earlier this season, but backup Sony Michel finished the regular season with 1,076 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 114.3 yards per game since Chubb’s season-ending injury.

Teams have been able to beat Penn State’s defense on the ground, where the Nittany Lions allowed 152.1 yards per game in Big Ten play. They also gave up 18 rushing touchdowns during the regular season.

Defensively, Georgia can make things really easy for its own offense by being itself. Penn State's Hackenberg hasn’t been great, but he was careful with the football, totaling just five interceptions on the season. Georgia’s pass defense was excellent all year long, ranking first nationally by allowing just 146.1 passing yards per game. The Bulldogs surrendered only nine passing touchdowns on the season and gave up just 5.8 yards per attempt. Georgia only picked off 11 passes but forced 21 turnovers and had 21 sacks. The Nittany Lions allowed a Big Ten-high 39 sacks and turned the ball over 17 times. -- Edward Aschoff

How Penn State wins: The Nittany Lions obviously can't rely on their struggling offense here, so the weight of an upset win will have to fall on the shoulders of the defense. Penn State has played four Power 5 teams with top-30 scoring defenses and didn't score more than 21 points in any of those games. So if the Nittany Lions are going to upset the Bulldogs -- the nation's No. 9 scoring defense (16.9 points per game) -- Penn State almost certainly must limit Georgia to 20 points or less to really stand a chance.

Getting in the backfield and disrupting Michel and the run is obviously key here. In the five games this season where PSU allowed 20 points or less, it averaged more than seven tackles for loss, nearly two turnovers and didn't let a single ball carrier finish with 100 yards. Penn State will need a similar performance to beat Georgia.

On offense, the recipe here is simple: Run, Saquon Barkley, run. Hackenberg has avoided turnovers this season, but he's still been largely inconsistent -- and he'll be going against the nation's No. 1 pass defense. Barkley has provided a huge spark on offense and has already set the school freshman record for rushing yards (1,007). How Barkley performs will likely determine how this offense does. -- Josh Moyer

Key matchups

After starting the final four games of the season at left tackle, Georgia's Isaiah Wynn gets the prize of having to take on one of the nation’s best defensive linemen. Penn State's Carl Nassib has been tremendous this season, leading the nation with 15.5 sacks and ranking second nationally with 19.5 tackles for loss. He also grabbed an interception and forced six fumbles. If Georgia’s offense is going to move, it needs Nassib to stay away from the backfield. Good luck, Isaiah. -- EA

Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson vs. Georgia center Hunter Long. Johnson is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten and, outside of Nassib, has been the best player on Penn State's defense. Despite regular double-teams, he's still third on the Nittany Lions with 70 tackles and second with 13 tackles for loss. He has the ability to take over a game, but if Georgia neutralizes him it could be a long day for the Penn State defense. -- JM

X factor

Georgia wide receiver and return specialist Isaiah McKenzie is a big play waiting to happen when he touches the football. He has two punt returns for touchdowns, and if he can be more involved in the passing game, he’s an instant mismatch for Penn State’s defense. He only touched the ball 20 times on offense this season but averaged 10.9 yards per touch. -- EA

Hackenberg. Sure, Barkley might be the first name that comes to mind here. But when Hackenberg is on, few in the Big Ten are better. And he's fared pretty well in season finales his past two seasons. As a freshman, he beat 25-point favorite Wisconsin with 339 yards and four touchdowns. And in the Pinstripe Bowl last season, he had 371 yards and four touchdowns. Barkley has been the spark plug of this offense, but Hackenberg has the potential to surprise. -- JM

Final prediction

Richt is gone, as are both coordinators. The Bulldogs’ new head coach -- Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart -- isn’t around the team full time yet, so who knows what the motivation will be for a team that had such a disappointing season. Georgia is about to face major changes as it transitions to Smart and his coaching staff, and something tells me the Bulldogs won’t play with complete focus. Penn State’s defense has the ability to force Georgia into bad situations and will prevail with a 20-17 win. -- EA

Penn State is better off without Donovan, the former offensive coordinator, but it's still hard to pick a team to win when you think it's incapable of scoring three touchdowns. Penn State's special teams have struggled and haven't set up the offense at all, while the offense as a whole -- ranked No. 106 nationally in yards per game -- should struggle against a top defense. This should be a close game, but Georgia pulls away in the end, 28-20. -- JM