A top-10 matchup takes place in the 2014 Orange Bowl, as No. 8 Mississippi State battles No. 10 Georgia Tech at Sun Life Stadium on New Year's Eve.
Mississippi State had spent a large portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the land, as the Bulldogs sprinted out to a 9-0 start. A tough 25-20 loss to eventual SEC champion Alabama was the team's first defeat, and it also dropped a 31-17 decision to bitter rival Ole Miss in the regular-season finale. As a result, MSU finished with a record of 10-2 overall, 6-2 in conference, finishing second in the SEC West.
The Bulldogs own a 10-7 record in bowl games, and this is their third straight bowl appearance, but only their sixth since 2000. Last year, Mississippi State routed Rice in the Liberty Bowl, 44-7, giving the team wins in six of its last seven bowls. MSU has appeared in the Orange Bowl twice previously, splitting bouts back in 1937 and 1941.
Georgia Tech went 10-3 this season, which included a 6-2 record against Atlantic Coast Conference foes. The team's league ledger earned it the Coastal Division title, and with it a date against Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. The Seminoles narrowly won, 37-35, ending the Yellow Jackets' five-game win streak. Still, it was a highly successful campaign for ACC Coach of the Year Paul Johnson and his team, which is making its 43rd bowl appearance.
The Yellow Jackets are 23-19 all-time in bowl games, and this is their seventh trip to the Orange Bowl. Their last appearance in this particular event was in 2010, when it fell to Iowa in a 24-14 final. Overall, Georgia Tech is appearing in its sixth straight postseason tussle, but will be seeking only its second win in the last 10 bowl games. Last season, the Yellow Jackets lost to Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl, 25-17.
The Orange Bowl came into existence back in 1935, with Bucknell blanking Miami-Florida, 26-0, and the most recent installment saw Clemson outlast Ohio State in a 40-35 final.
Balance was the key to Mississippi State's success on offense this season, as the team averaged 239.8 ypg rushing and 266.3 ypg through the air. As a result, the Bulldogs put up 37.2 ppg to rank second in the SEC, and they got impressive individual efforts from guys like RB Josh Robinson (177 carries, 1,128 yards, 11 TDs) and QB Dak Prescott (195 carries, 939 yards, 13 TDs; .612 completion percentage, 2,996 yards, 24 TDs, 10 INTs).
Prescott spread the wealth this season, as nine different players logged double-digit catches, led by De'Runnya Wilson (38 rec., 575 yards, seven TDs).
The team's defensive effort was on point for the most part, particularly with regard to stopping the run (126.5 ypg) and keeping foes off the scoreboard (19.4 ppg). Swarming to the ball was MSU's strength, as no player had more than Bernadrick McKinney's 61 tackles. Included in that total were eight TFL and three sacks for McKinney, who slotted in with a group of players with multiple sacks, right behind team leader Preston Smith, who tallied 14.5 TFL and the fourth-most sacks of any player in the conference with nine.
Overall, the Bulldogs ranked second in the SEC with 36 sacks, and they recorded 15 INTs, three each being credited to Will Redmond and Richie Brown.
"The task at hand is to get 11 wins and go out with a win in Miami, but at the same time it is my last bowl game and we want to have a little fun while we're down here," said MSU offensive lineman Ben Beckwith. "You always have the game in the back of your mind with everything you do and every time you do something you think about beating Georgia Tech, but we'll have fun with it."
Beating Georgia Tech isn't going to be easy, as the Yellow Jackets hammer the ball at you from the outset, and they don't give up until you're battered the bruised. They finished the regular season as the No. 2 rushing team in the country, churning out 333.6 ypg and scoring 41 TDs, and they led the ACC in scoring at 37.0 ppg. Tech yielded only 10 sacks, while converting 57 percent of its third-down opportunities and controlling the clock for more than 34 minutes per outing.
The team doesn't have a 1,000-yard rusher, although QB Justin Thomas came close in amassing 965 yards, and no player had double-digit TDs, again Zach Laskey tallying nine scores as part of his 788-yard effort. Synjyn Days also got in on the act with 753 yards and six TDs. Thomas added nearly 1,600 yards, 17 TDs and only five INTs when the Yellow Jackets decided to put the ball in the air. DeAndre Smelter led the receiving corps with 35 grabs for 715 yards and seven scores, while Darren Waller finished with five TD catches.
Georgia Tech's effort on defense wasn't quite up to par with that of the offense this season, but the unit still did not enough to help the team record 10 victories and win a division title. Opponents put up 25.1 ppg, doing so behind typical outputs of 168.8 ypg on the ground and 227.6 ypg via the pass. The team's total defensive allowance of 396.4 ypg ranked it 12th in the 14- team conference.
P.J. Davis spearheaded the Yellow Jackets' defensive effort with 108 total tackles, 75 of which were solo efforts, while Quayshawn Nealy logged 90 stops. Tech only posted 18 sacks and 57 TFL, but goaded the opposition into 27 turnovers, 17 of which were interceptions. D.J. White and Jamal Golden had four picks apiece.
"(This is) very exciting," said Thomas. "We set our goals and reached them. We did big things this year. Now it is time to finish the job. We just need to come out the same way we did the last game. We need to come out with high intensity. We need to start fast. And we need to keep the offense moving forward."