Music City Bowl Primer: Georgia Tech vs. Ole Miss
This game pits a self-styled riser with a team that seems confined to good-not-great status.
Ole Miss made headlines with a much-heralded 2013 recruiting class, but promising young talent doesn't translate to championship contention in the hardscrabble SEC West (Hugh Freeze's team went 5-1 outside the division).
The Rebels (7-5) avoided four consecutive losses to the division powers with an upset against LSU, dropping one-possession games to Auburn and Texas A&M as well, but the team gave back a game with a loss to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
Georgia Tech (7-5), jammed into a pack of 11 bowl-eligible teams in the ACC, crushed Duke on the road and beat three 2013 bowl winners at home: North Carolina, Syracuse and Pitt. It seems like seven-to-nine wins is about right for a Paul Johnson-led Yellow Jackets squad, and a double-overtime loss to depleted rival Georgia prevented the team from perhaps being viewed as the conference's third or fourth-best group.
Motivation: Despite the No. 1 team in the country, two BCS bowl participants and a nation-high 11 bowl teams, many rate the ACC behind the Big Ten in the pecking order. Not that the Yellow Jackets are concerned with league-wide perception — that seems to be an SEC/Big 12 obsession — but the borderline Top 25 program is an underdog in large part because of the conference affiliations involved.
If You've Never Seen Them: Surely you're aware of Johnson's esteemed triple option, which 2013 Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken, a Johnson disciple who's since accepted the Army job, used to knock off Florida. The run-heavy team's well of NFL receivers (Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Stephen Hill) has dried, but Jeremiah Attaochu is a Grade A pass-rush prospect who finished the season strong after converting from outside linebacker to defensive end under Ted Roof.
Weakness: Triple option teams are a bit like basketball teams that run the Princeton offense. They rely on out-executing opponents, and the Yellow Jackets have not taken care of the football well enough. Vad Lee is an athletic young quarterback, but he's thrown 10 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Tech also lost its share of fumbles.
Motivation: Expectations in Oxford will be high in 2014, so utilizing the extra bowl practices to refine the team's inexperienced athleticism is more significant than any bowl result. Still, Rebels fans didn't take well to losing in Starkville, and avoiding a three-game losing streak to close out 2013 will make the offseason more bearable.
If You've Never Seen Them: Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell are capable of being next year's Javon Landry/Odell Beckham Jr. if they get good quarterback play in 2014, and the star of the recruiting class, true freshman Robert Nkemdiche, made eight tackles for loss and flashed potential. But junior Cody Prewitt is the team's best player, a ball hawk who earned first-team All-American status at safety. The collection of individual talent in certain spots is better than the team as a whole.
Weakness: Bo Wallace struggles with consistency, but run defense is the biggest weakness. That makes this game a bad matchup for the Rebels, at least on that side of the ball. Ole Miss allowed a combined 722 rushing yards against Alabama, Auburn and Missouri, which is nothing shameful — those three teams ran well against a lot of defenses — but also gave up 196 to Arkansas.
Las Vegas Hilton Line: Ole Miss -3.