Miami Lakes, FL ( December 31) – It was a very Happy New Year for Georgia Tech and its football program as the 12th-ranked Yellow jackets out-raced the 7th-ranked Bulldogs during the third quarter of one of this year’s four College Football Playoff (CFP) bowls to score a tremendous upset, 49-34. It was one of those games where the final result wasn’t indicative of the true dominance by the winners. Tech’s triple option attack set an Orange Bowl record with 452 yards rushing. RB Synjyn Days ran for 171 yards and three TDS, but sophomore QB Justin Thomas garnered the MVP Trophy with his efforts as he tallied 121 yards on the ground, three rushing touchdowns, and threw for 125 yards on seven of twelve passing and one touchdown. Holding a 21-20 lead at the half, the Rambling Wreck (11-3) came out firing on all cylinders to ramble by the Bulldogs outscoring them, 21-0, in the third. The option was engineered better than by any other QB HC Paul Johnson’s had at Tech since he arrived from the Naval Academy. Despite the Bulldogs 453 passing yards by QB Dak Prescott, the GT defense covered close and tackled well in the open field to keep the SEC team in check throughout the exciting game. For CFF.com, the result couldn’t have been more rewarding after a flight from Nashville to Jacksonville followed by a seven hour drive to Miami with a stop in Orlando on the way down for the 8 pm kickoff.
After I sat high in the upper deck of Sun Life Stadium realizing I shouldn’t have bought a ticket in advance, I positioned myself to a better view to cut my sight angle and to take some better pictures. It was good move for some critical plays later. Tech DB Chris Milton picked off a deflected pass by Prescott and set his offense up at the MSU 36. Four plays later, Days took it in from the three. Later in the period, Thomas connected with Darren Waller (5 catches, 114 yards, 1 TD) in the end zone for a 41-yard pass to hold a 14-0 lead at the end to the period.
State (10-3) tallied 13 point to close within one on a Prescott 5-yard run sandwiched between two Evan Sobiesk field goals of 32 and 30 yards. The Jackets responded next with an 82-yard scoring drive capped by Thomas’s 13-yard TD run around the right side to extend GT’s lead, 21-13, with only 29 seconds remaining until half time. However, Prescott moved the ball to the Tech 42 with both teams using all their time-outs to make adjustments as State moved closer into scoring range. Paul Johnson, himself an offensive guru, gathered his defense around him to tell them to stay deeper than the deepest man and when they got to the ball to be sure to knock it down and not up. The strategy was sound, and the defensive execution was correct as the ball fell to the ground, but Bulldog WR Fred Ross who had trailed the play caught the descending deflection coming out of the crowd before it hit the ground and State was within two. The extra point got delayed as the roadies for the halftime show had already rolled out three large stages for the halftime entertainment. They seemed hesitant to react at first seeming to think that his was a concert with football as entertainment and not vice versa. It took them a few minutes to get the stage far enough off the field before Sobiesk kicked the PAT to make it a one-point margin at 21-20 at the half.
The Country group “Little Big Town” performed at the half along with about a million high school and grade school cheerleaders for our New Year’s Eve halftime entertainment. As noted before, there were a lot of empty seats at this one. When I bought the tickets in advance, it was back when the potential was for teams like Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan State, Florida State, or Ohio State to play in this game with possibly just one loss and to possibly not make the Final Four. Tech and State have good but not huge fan followings when on the road, but now I even wonder if schools such as those I mentioned would draw big crowds to these CFP Bowls as opposed to playing in one of the two semi-final games on New Year’s Day. I probably won’t buy tickets in advance for a CFP Bowl again knowing what I know now. I think this will become the eventual drive to go to an eight –team playoff. However, for this reason, I’ll still suggest that the opening round be played on the campus of the four highest seeds. There’s no way these bowls can fill to capacity if teams have to play two or three games on neutral sites on the road to the title. Their fans would probably wait to see if they make it to the final and then there would be a clamor for tickets. It would also depend on the teams involved. Some have better road followings than others.
Tech received the opening kickoff to start the third, and two plays later Synjyn Days broke to the left sideline and tip-toed along the way for a 69-yard touchdown. The play was reviewed, but I saw from my perfectly aligned perch that he never came close to stepping out. Retaking a quick 28-20 lead, the Jackets showed that they weren’t about to back down to the favored Bulldogs from the SEC. It was all Yellow Jackets after that. The defense took the ball over on downs. The offense responded with an 81-yard scoring drive effectively running the option until Thomas raced through the right side for a 32-yard score. Next, the swarming Yellow Jacket defense recovered a Prescott fumble on their 48. This time Thomas ran it over from the 15. The third ended with the Wrecks on top, 42-20. The Bulldogs couldn’t move the football or stop Tech’s well-oiled triple option.
In the final period, Mississippi State tried to mount a comeback as Prescott threw a seven-yard TD pass to De’Runnya Wilson on the first play of the final period to cap a drive. However, Tech could still not be denied. State attempted an onsides kick that put the Jackets on their 46. Seven plays and three minutes later, Days carried the ball in from the four. State finished up the scoring with a 12-yard pass from Prescott to Wilson to close the scoring for the game, 49-34.
Tech was already starting their New Year’s Eve celebration along the sideline. It was all over, and Georgia Tech is probably looking forward to 2015 already. Thomas, a sophomore, will probably be back for two more seasons. He’s not an NFL caliber quarterback looking to jump to the pros. Instead, he’s a QB perfect for Paul Johnson’s triple option attack. He’s a small, quick, athletic running back who can throw the ball well when he has to. Keep an eye on Tech the next few years. We haven’t been to Grant Field in Atlanta yet, and one of the next two years may give us a good excuse to go to a game down there in Atlanta.
In the meantime, I drove to my hotel, filled the car with gas on the way back, showered, repacked and got ready for a trek back north to Orlando on New Year’s morning. On my way down, I stopped in Orlando on the way to pick up my press credentials to cover the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl for Collegefootballfan.com in the first to be played in the new Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. It couldn’t get much better for a college football fan than this.
Next stop: New Year’s Day in Orlando
Extra points: Every school is proud of its fight song and everyone knows “Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech.” When they introduced it as the world’s greatest fight song, I differed significantly. I made a DVD with 90 minutes of many favorite fights song that I love to listen to (ask people who travel to games with me in my car). I hate to tell them that this one is not on there. It’s good, but I doesn’t get me fired up like most of the others do.
The opening band that came on to play before the game was the Easton (PA) Area High School marching band. Easton is the home of FCS school Lafayette College about an hour from my home. We attend Lafayette Leopard games there once in a while as well as the traditional longest college rivalry (#150 this year) played against nearby, archival Lehigh. Another traditional game played at Lafayette College every year is Easton Area of PA against Phillipsburg right across the Delaware River in NJ as they have a long time rivalry of their own played every Thanksgiving. I got some band members a little shocked but smiling when I walked by them after the game and said, “Go Phillipsburg!”
With some of these SEC bowl losses, I’m wondering if any lesson will be learned that they have to shore up their non-conference schedules somehow to understand that there are better teams out there that they have to prepare for. MSU is a good case in point. They had basically four automatic wins this season – Southern Miss, 1-11 a year ago and 3-9 this season; Alabama-Birmingham who decided to end their program this season after years of futility; at South Alabama, a third year FBS program; and UT-Martin, a 6-6 FCS program. Playing these weak non-conference games and familiarizing yourself year after year with only other programs in your conference, provide a poor perception that there are other really good teams outside your conference playing football. It would help to play one or two better non-conference opponents to familiarize your team that there are other real football programs out there beyond your own short scope. You can’t think every team out there is a walkover like the ones scheduled by the Bulldogs. Of course, you have to beat some of them to get to a bowl, but there seems to be fear of such challenges in the SEC.