The Georgia Bulldogs meet the Penn State Nittany Lions for just the second time in the two schools’ storied pasts this weekend in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The first meeting decided the 1982 National Championship, and though the TaxSlayer Bowl means significantly less to both schools, both fan bases will be looking for a positive end to disappointing seasons. For Penn State, this game is a chance to further cement their comeback from the Jerry Sandusky scandal that nearly shuttered the program. For Georgia, the TaxSlayer Bowl represents an opportunity to usher in a new era of UGA football with a win following the dismissal of head coach Mark Richt.
Though the TaxSlayer Bowl might not be the most exciting bowl game out there, there are plenty of intriguing storylines between the two teams. Here are the top five things to watch for Georgia:
1. Will Georgia come out flat?
Georgia started and ended the season on four game winning streaks, but the five games in between were a nightmarish disaster, as the Bulldogs dropped important games to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida. Though a 9-3 season would be acceptable for most programs, Georgia decided it was time to part ways with Mark Richt – who compiled a 145-51 (.740) record in his 15 seasons at the helm. For the TaxSlayer Bowl, Georgia will be without Richt (now head coach at the University of Miami), offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (now defensive coordinator at the University of Alabama). If that is not enough of a distraction, new head coach Kirby Smart is still coaching Alabama in the College Football Playoff and interim head coach Bryan McClendon is defecting to the University of South Carolina immediately following the game. It would not surprise anyone if Georgia was a bit disinterested on Saturday.
2. Georgia’s passing defense vs. Christian Hackenberg
Georgia’s passing defense was a major growth spot from 2014 to 2015, ranking first in the nation allowing just 146.1 yards per game through the air. The Bulldogs also allowed just nine passing touchdowns all year. Penn State’s junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg – who stuck with Penn State even after the team was hit with major sanctions before the 2013 season – has enjoyed success as the Nittany Lions’ signal caller. He has been inconsistent, but he is still one of the best quarterbacks Penn State has seen. In 2015, Hackenberg is 184-of-345 (.533) for 2,386 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. For Penn State to open up the pass against the Georgia defense, they will have to find some success on the ground, which has been a struggle this season, as the Nittany Lions rushing offense ranks 105th in the country (135.3 yards per game). This will be a great battle to watch.
3. Which Greyson Lambert will show up for Georgia?
Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert was a bit of a conundrum this season. He quietly had an efficient season, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. He had his ups – 24-of-25 for 330 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina (50th ranked pass defense). He had his downs – 10-of-24 for 86 yards and an interception against Alabama (17th ranked pass defense). Penn State boasts the ninth best pass defense in the country, allowing just 174.5 yards per game. Plus, they have a vicious pass rush, tied for the most team sacks in the country with 44. If Lambert cannot sustain drives, convert on third down (a recurring problem all year) and complete passes downfield, Georgia will be in trouble.
4. Penn State’s pass rush vs. Georgia’s offensive line
Speaking of Penn State’s vicious pass rush, the Nittany Lions are led by former walk-on Carl Nassib, who set a Penn State single-season record with 15.5 sacks in just 10 games. Nassib won the Lombardi Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy and Ted Hendricks Award this season and was the anchor on a great defensive front. Conversely, Georgia only allowed 13 sacks all year (13th in the country) and has seen solid offensive line play all year. It’ll be another great battle to watch Saturday.
5. Who will be the first team to 20 points?
Georgia and Penn State both struggled to score points this season, especially against quality opponents. Penn State ranked 101st, scoring 23.7 points per game (23.8 in conference play). Georgia ranked 83rd, scoring 26.5 points per game (22.9 in conference play and just 18 points per game in their final six contests). With Georgia’s pass defense matching up well with Penn State’s passing offense, and Penn State’s rushing defense matching up well with Georgia’s rushing offense, the first team to crack 20 points (if that) should win the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Saturday’s game is really a toss-up. Though the coaching changes could end up being a huge distraction for Georgia, expect them to fight hard and band together as a team and come out ready to go. It might be a struggle for both teams to move the ball, but solely based on the fact that Georgia has the more talented and complete team, they will win the TaxSlayer Bowl – final score: 23-17.