Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III
FILE - Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III (9) rushes against Rutgers during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Piscataway, N.J., in this Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, file photo. Walker was selected to The Associated Press Midseason All-America team, announced Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger, File)

Peach Bowl Preview

Mike Shara

The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
Thursday, December 30   7 p.m. on ESPN
Michigan State Spartans vs. Pittsburgh Panthers

SPREAD : MSU -2.5 on FanDuel
OVER/UNDER : 55.5 on BetMGM
MONEYLINE: Pitt +115 on DraftKings

This year’s Peach Bowl is a pretty good example of two teams playing each other that, if a few little things had gone differently, could have been playing in the FBS Championship Final Four. With very good records in competitive conferences, both teams also each present pretty good arguments for expanding the championship tournament to 8 teams (or even 16), given how close they were to being a serious National Champion threat. Seriously – who on earth prefers computers settling this debate, rather than seeing schools that rarely meet play meaningful games against one another? Not to mention that star players might be less inclined to sit out of these games if they knew they were competing for a possible National title, rather than just a corporate-sponsored entity designed to make other people lots of money?  But I digress…

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MICHIGAN STATE (10-2, 7-2 in the Big 10)
The Spartans’ season has been a bit of a surprise – after last season’s 2-5 record they weren’t expected to be nearly as competitive as they were and weren’t even ranked in the AP Top 25 until late September. Give Head Coach Mel Tucker credit – well, I suppose his brand new $95 million contract has already done that – he has maximized the talent his team has. Relying heavily on the running of Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III and a passing attack that features several big play threats, they have (somewhat) overcome a poor secondary with a stout defensive line that can get to the quarterback quickly.  Facing a potent, high-octane offense like Pittsburgh will prove a sizable test, but the Panthers will be missing several key contributors on offense, perhaps easing their disadvantage. MSU also faces a major hole in their usual offensive game plan, with Walker (and his 1646 rushing yards this season) choosing to opt out of the game. Jordon Simmons, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry in minimal playing time this season, seems the logical choice to replace him.

PITTSBURGH (11-2, 8-1 in the ACC)
After finishing 2020 with a 6-5 record and no bowl game appearance, the Panthers weren’t on anyone’s list of possible contenders heading into this season. They didn’t even breach the AP Top 25 until late October and then fell out of it again two weeks later. However, they rallied with big wins in November and eventually won the ACC Championship, handily crushing a good Wake Forest team to earn their spot in this year’s Peach Bowl.  Pitt boasts one of the nation’s best offenses, averaging the third-most points in FBS this year. However, they will be missing big pieces for this game as quarterback Kenny Pickett (42 TD, 4319 yards, 7 INT) and wide receiver Taysir Mack (third on the team in receptions) have chosen not to play. Also, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has left to become Head Coach at Nebraska, and his loss could be as significant as any in this game. Junior Nick Patti will take the reins as starting quarterback. He has attempted just 14 passes in the past two seasons but will have had a full month of practices with the first team.

THE MATCHUP
Usually, a bowl game that features at least one Southeastern-based team (it’s in Atlanta, after all), this year’s Peach Bowl is a bit of an anomaly as both of these ‘Yankee’ schools are making their first-ever appearances in the game. Both teams’ defenses are the reason they aren’t playing a January game, but their offenses have been keeping them in games, allowing them both to win several high-scoring in-conference games. Had Pitt not laid an egg vs. Western Michigan early in the season, they may have made a reasonable claim to one of the spots in the final four. The Spartans’ upset loss to unranked Purdue the week after defeating Michigan ostensibly derailed any hopes, they had of a playoff bowl game appearance. Both teams’ offensive firepower would appear to be severely handicapped due to the departure of key players and personnel after the regular season, which would explain why the over/under has dropped by a touchdown since it opened.

I don’t feel confident that MSU can keep the ball out of Pitt’s hands enough without Walker running the ball and I’m not confident their porous defense can keep the Panthers out of the end zone for long, even with their backup quarterback running the show. In a dome game where there won’t be any weather factors to slow them down, I think both teams will move the ball with relative impunity, and it will devolve into a bit of a shootout. That over/under still looks a tad low to me, too.

PREDICTION: Pitt 41, MSU 31.

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