Thursday, January 1, 2009

Citrus Bowl Breakdown

As a Michigan State undergrad, an alum of an SEC (University of Kentucky) grad school, and someone who spends most of his free time traveling between Lexington, Atlanta, and even Athens, I figured I would give my two cents on the Capital One (formerly the Citrus) Bowl.

Before we look at the game, let's look at the schools. Typically, I am not a fan of SEC campuses. While SEC schools typically seem to lack the feel of a true college town, Athens is the exception. UGA could fit in with Big Ten Campuses with their classic brick dorms and classroom buildings that border an off campus bar and shopping district. They have micro-breweries, a famous music scene, and even a Wild Wing Cafe. I was in love at first sight.

Michigan State and Georgia come in with identical 9-3 records, but their fan bases couldn't view their seasons more differently. Georgia came in as the pre-season #1 team in the country only to have their offensive and defensive lines devastated by injuries before the season ever really started. Injuries or not, Georgia's 9-3 record is generally viewed as disappointing by Bulldog fans. On the other hand, in two years coach Mark Dantonio has turned Michigan State from one of college football's classic underachievers, to one of the most overachieving teams in the nation this season. Both teams handled the teams they were supposed to beat, but both lost badly in match-ups against their respective conferences' power houses (Michigan State to Ohio State and Penn State, and Georgia to Florida and Alabama). Michigan State lost a winnable road game to start the season at California, while Georgia blew their season finally to in-state rival Georgia Tech. As for their body of work this season, the two teams couldn't be more similar.

Next, let's start off with the standard perception that the Big Ten is big and slow, and the SEC has superior speed and athletic ability. Michigan State definitely has speed at the skill positions. cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Chris Rucker should be able to keep up with speedy Georgia wideouts A.J. Green and Mohamed Massaquoi. They should also match up well against them in bump and run coverage to slow their breaks off the line of scrimmage. Michigan State has also utilized two different linebacker sets this season. A "fast" group that they used against spread offenses, and a "strong" group to go against more powerful running teams. While Georgia doesn't run the spread, MSU will use their "fast" group to counteract the Bulldog's speed on offense. Given that coach Dantonio took over a team that was pretty bare in talent beyond the skill positions two years ago, bench speed is the department where the Spartans should be lacking as compared to the Bulldogs. Fortunately for the Spartans, they have been lucky to avoid key injuries this season. When they have suffered injuries, former walk-ons like Blair White and Danny Fortsen have stepped in and actually out performed the starters they replaced. Given their overall success recruiting on a yearly basis, Georgia should have had an advantage in overall depth and bench speed. However, the Bulldogs were devastated by injuries this season, with somewhere between 22-28 players expected to miss the Citrus Bowl. With so many of their starters and bench players out, I truly think their team speed advantage will be negated by having to dig so far down their depth chart at so many key positions.

At running back, Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Georgia's Knowshon Moreno are without question two of the top 3 or 4 running backs in the country (along with Iowa's Shon Green and Pittsburg's "Shady" McCoy). Moreno is explosive and flashy with his hurdles and spin moves. While Ringer's small stature makes him appear as nothing more than a third down back, he probably has some of the most powerful legs in the country and exceptional balance. Georgia will look to hit the home run with Moreno, while Michigan State would ideally like to hand Ringer the ball 30 times and make a Bulldog team that has had problems tackling this season wear down.

On special teams, Georgia should have a more explosive return game, especially with budding Michigan State freshman Glenn Winston being left home for disciplinary reasons. However, Michigan State has one of the most accurate field goal kickers in the nation in Brett Swenson, and a rising star in sophomore punter Aaron Bates. This game could come down to a battle of field position.

In my opinion, the key to this game is going to come down to quarterback play. The individual play of the two individual quarterbacks involved couldn't be more representative of their respective teams' performances. Michigan State's Brian Hoyer is not flashy, does not have the measurables that NFL scouts look for (although he does have VERY underrated arm strength), yet he somehow manages to keep his team in the position to win games that the Spartans consistantly lost in the past. Despite some criticism that Hoyer receives on Spartan message boards, he is the first Michigan State qb to lead the team to back to back bowl games in about 40 years, and I think his legacy at State will only get better in hindsight. In comparison, Matt Stafford is big, strong, and a candidate to be the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft if he elects to leave school early. Given that my Detroit Lions were a lock to hold that #1 pick all season, I asked one of my UGA alum friends what he thought of Stafford long before a Michigan State -Georgia bowl match-up was on the horizon. His take was that Stafford has a cannon for an arm, all the potential in the world, but somehow doesn't seem to put it together on the field. That scared the hell out of me as a Lions fan, but we'll see what he can do today against the Spartan's defense.

So there you have it. This match-up is slow versus fast, the overachiever against the underachiever. Will Georgia finally step up and show their potential against a team they "think" they should beat? I don't think so. Georgia is disappointed that they are in Orlando instead of in Miami playing for the National Championship. They think they will win, but Michigan State is the team that has put in the effort to get the job done. Georgia will put 8 in the box to try and contain Ringer, and dare Brian Hoyer to beat their secondary in man coverage. Cementing his legacy as an overachiever, I think Hoyer comes through. Prediction: Sparty 27 -UGA 24.