By the time these two teams take the field on New Year's Day, it will be the first competitive action for either team in over a month. You can expect both the Spartans and the Bulldogs to struggle a little bit in the early going as they try to shake off the December rust.
These two teams come into the game with identical records, but that's where the similarities end. The Bulldogs were the preseason No. 1 team, expected by many to build on their impressive Sugar Bowl performance of last year and contend for the BCS Title. The Spartans, on the other hand, were unranked and simply hoped to create some momentum a season after reaching their first bowl since 2003.
Georgia is no doubt unhappy with how their season unfolded. The Dawgs lost their No. 1 ranking after their first game, despite winning by a score of 45-21. Many in the media called it "unimpressive" and moved USC ahead of Georgia by a narrow margin.
Things got worse for Georgia after the first week.
After dispatching Central Michigan by 39 points, they struggled to a 14-7 victory over second-tier SEC program South Carolina.
Two weeks later, Georgia would suffer their first loss of the season at the hands of their bitter rivals Alabama. The Tide exposed some serious weaknesses in Georgia's game, and the final score was not as close as 41-30 would indicate.
Georgia would go on to lose two more games, a blowout at the hands of Florida and an exciting comeback by in-state rivals Georgia Tech. Despite finishing with a 9-3 record, Georgia never quite looked like the dominant team that they were expected to be in the preseason.
Michigan State also began their season on a low note, losing to Cal on the road in a game that many thought they would win. Star running back Javon Ringer was held below 100 yards, and the only real bright spots for the Spartans were Otis Wiley's two interceptions and Mark Dell's 209 receiving yards.
The Spartans rebounded nicely from the opening loss, rattling off six straight wins and becoming bowl eligible before the big matchup with Ohio State. Javon Ringer showed his true form, racking up touchdowns and big gains like he was playing against high school defenses.
The Ohio State game was a bit of a let-down for the Spartans as they got blown out on the national stage by a Buckeye team being led by a true freshman. Many predicted that this loss would be the catalyst for Michigan State's annual late-season collapse.
MSU silenced many of their doubters by finishing the season 3-1, with the only blemish coming in a blowout on the final day of their regular season to Big Ten champs Penn State.
So there we stand. A Capital One Bowl with two 9-3 teams who had two very different seasons. Let's get to the analysis.
Michigan State will win if...
Javon Ringer has a big day
The number of yards gained by Javon Ringer, combined, in all three of the Spartans' losses: 190, or an average of just over 63.
The number of yards gained by Javon Ringer in the Spartans' 17-0 shutout of Florida Atlantic: 282.
Those numbers tell the whole story of the
Spartans' season. In wins, Ringer averaged over 155 yards per game, well more than double what he averaged in losses. Twice this season (against FAU and Notre Dame), Ringer eclipsed the 200 yard mark. Against Indiana he was two yards shy of 200, and six yards shy against Michigan.
As goes Ringer, so go the Spartans.
For the Spartans to pull the upset in Orlando, Ringer needs to show the form that made him an All-American this season. He needs to be the Javon Ringer who ran for 1,590 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, and not the Javon Ringer who was shut down by Penn State in the season finale.
If Ringer can exploit a suspect Georgia run defense, then the Spartans give themselves a great chance to win.
Fortunately for Spartans fans, the Michigan State offensive line can play physically with the best of them.
Brian Hoyer effectively manages the game
The Spartans will not win this game on the strength of Brian Hoyer's arm.
But, if Hoyer can stay out of trouble, keep the turnovers to a minimum, and make short, accurate throws, the Spartans can win.
Hoyer's biggest contribution to the Spartans' season was limiting turnovers and sacks. This allowed Ringer to stay on the field longer. If Hoyer was stuck in a bad situation, he was willing to throw the ball away. This kept the Spartans out of too many third-and-longs, allowing Ringer to be a threat for three downs.
When Hoyer played poorly, opposing defenses could stack the box against the run, effectively suffocating the Spartan attack.
Hoyer is at his most effective when he's throwing short balls to his receivers. He can go deep on occasion, but those deep routes will only be open if he's effective on throws that are good for six to 10 yards.
Of course, he also needs to get some help from his receivers.
Drops have plagued the Spartan program for all of the four and a half years that I've been a student in East Lansing. Guys like Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, not to mention Blair White and Charlie Gantt, have to give Hoyer some help in order to keep his confidence up.
The defense plays well
Mark Twain once said that there were three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.
No unit better exemplifies this than the Michigan State defense.
You can look at the numbers and say that they gave up too many yards each game, or only held opponents to an average of 21.9 points per game.
Irrelevant, I say.
Take out the Penn State and Ohio State blowouts, and the points allowed shrinks to 16.9.
The total yards allowed is a misleading statistic, as well. Michigan State got great special teams play, so opponents would routinely have 40-50 yard drives ending in punts, or 70-80 yard drives resulting in field goals.
Simply put, MSU's opponents travelled a long way to do nothing.
Against Northwestern, Michigan State dominated the game but was outgained 459 to 297. Why? They held a ridiculous advantage in average field position.
Care to guess? MSU's drives started, on average, on the Northwestern 49. NU, on the other hand, was backed up to their own 18. That's a spread of 33 yards. MSU started every drive a mere 15 yards out of field goal range. Meanwhile, Northwestern could pick up 45 yards and still have to punt.
This bend but don't break philosophy allowed the Spartans to have the top red zone defense in the Big Ten this season.
Star linebacker Greg Jones also mentioned earlier in the week that MSU's defense doesn't fear Georgia's alleged speed. He feels that practicing against Javon Ringer all season has adequately prepared them to face Knowshon Moreno.
This could either be bulletin board material, or an indication of a defense looking to make a big statement.
If the latter unit shows up, Georgia could be in trouble.
Georgia will win if...
Knowshon Moreno has a big day
Moreno carried the ball over 100 times less than Ringer did this season, but finished with a gaudy 5.9 yards per carry. He's quick, he's got fantastic moves, and he's got to be a big worry for any defense that goes up against him.
He's also a big threat as a receiver out of the backfield. He had 27 catches for 329 yards on the season.
If Moreno's versatility is exploited to its fullest, it will give the Spartan defense too much to handle. Most defenses would be hard-pressed to deal with a dual threat running back and a talented quarterback with a dynamic receiving corps.
Georgia has to hope that Moreno gets off to a quick start. If he does, the Spartans will be forced to stack the box in an effort to stop him. Matt Stafford would then start salivating at the thought of working against an eight-man front.
The defense shuts down Ringer
Georgia's defensive mantra this week needs to be "Make Brian Hoyer beat us."
If their defensive front wins the battle in the trenches, then a victory becomes a lot easier. The Spartans' hopes will ride on a quarterback who completed barely 50 percent of his passes and threw for only nine touchdowns.
Who knows, Hoyer could have the game of his life and end up leading the Spartans to victory. But not even I, the biggest Spartan homer on the Bleacher Report, would bet money on that.
Stop Ringer. Hoyer can't beat an elite team by himself.
The battle of the dogs
Uga is easily the most famous canine collegiate mascot in the country. But I can't for the life of me figure out what he does.
As far as I can tell, he just drools. I'm not impressed.
Michigan State has a dog on their side as well, a dog with an athletic pedigree.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Zeke the Wonder Dog.
Zeke is the Jackie Chan to Uga's Chris Farley.
No word on whether or not Zeke will make an appearance in Orlando, but if he does, look for Uga to be intimidated. This could turn the stadium in favor of the Spartans.
I'd like to be an optimist, but instead I'll have to settle for being a realist. Michigan State is a good team, but they haven't reached greatness yet. Give Mark Dantonio another couple of years, and I guarantee he'll have the Spartans competing with the elite programs around the country.
Not yet, though.
In a game that will be closer than many people expect, Georgia to win by a score of 27-24.
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