SEC: Paul Johnson
It wasn’t pretty, but Ole Miss did just enough to knock off Georgia Tech and win the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl 25-17. With the win, the Rebels have now won 10 of their past 11 bowl games.
Here’s how it went down:
It was over when: Mike Hilton sealed the victory with an interception in the final minute, but the key play came the drive before when Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace connected with Laquon Treadwell for 27 yards on third-and-13. It allowed the Rebels to run an extra two minutes off the clock and made a Georgia Tech comeback nearly impossible. The freshman wide receiver finished with five catches for 51 yards, but none bigger than that third-down grab.
Game ball goes to: Wallace. The Ole Miss signal-caller played maybe his worst game as a Rebel in an overtime loss to Mississippi State in the regular-season finale, but he redeemed himself with an impressive performance against Georgia Tech on Monday. The junior went 22-of-32 for 256 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed 13 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns. It was a successful homecoming for the Tennessee native, who finished the season on a high note.
Unsung hero: Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford. The senior, who missed the 2011 and 2012 seasons due to ACL tears, might not have gotten the credit he deserved this season, but he was all over the field for the Rebels on Monday. Down the stretch, he blew up the Yellow Jackets' reverse pass attempt that ultimately led to a safety, and he was the one to apply pressure on the quarterback which forced the game-clinching interception.
Stat of the game: Georgia Tech rushed for 92 yards in the first quarter, including 64 yards on the opening drive. Ole Miss held the Yellow Jackets to just 59 yards on 33 carries the rest of the way. The return of freshman star Robert Nkemdiche and safety Cody Prewitt in the second quarter was huge (both were suspended for the first quarter; Prewitt later left due to injury), but the whole defense stepped up, stopped the triple-option attack and carried the Rebels to victory.
What we learned: Ole Miss fell short of its goals this season, but with a victory in the bowl game, the Rebels can take some momentum with them into the offseason. This is clearly a team on the rise, and it’s not far from competing in the SEC West with the likes of Alabama and Auburn. As for Georgia Tech, it’s time to start wondering if the Yellow Jackets have reached their ceiling under coach Paul Johnson. They will lose 11 senior starters on both sides of the ball, and all they have to show for it is a 7-6 season with a loss in the bowl game.
To watch the trophy presentation of the Music City Bowl, click here.
Smith's first substantial playing time actually came as the result of a questionable cut block that knocked DeAngelo Tyson out of Georgia's 2011 win over the Yellow Jackets. Smith, then a green sophomore, replaced Tyson in the lineup and recorded seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss, earning SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week honors in the process.
Defensive players don't like dealing with triple-option offenses like Georgia Tech (7-4) and Georgia Southern run, and specifically don't like having to keep their eyes out for pesky offensive linemen who consistently dive at their knees.
“It's just like being out on the streets: you've got to keep your head on a swivel and watch your surroundings,” Smith said. “Protect yourself at all times.”
Otherwise you could suffer Tyson's fate. Or even if you manage to protect yourself, you might fail to fill the proper gap and be the goat when the Yellow Jackets break a long run.
That was the issue for Florida's defense last weekend against Georgia Southern, when the Eagles ran 54 times for 429 yards and upset the Gators 26-20.
Afterward, Gators coach Will Muschamp admitted that the challenges presented in defending that scheme leveled the playing field for the FCS Eagles.
“That's why a lot of these schools run it -- because it takes talent out of the equation,” Muschamp told reporters this week. “A lot of talented guys don't like having somebody at their knees every snap, either.”
Georgia (7-4) has improved in each successive game against Georgia Tech's option since Todd Grantham became defensive coordinator in 2010. That first year, the Yellow Jackets ran 77 times for 411 yards and Georgia barely held on for a 42-34 win. The Bulldogs have won easily in each of the last two seasons, with Tech running 53 times for 243 yards in a 31-17 loss in 2011 and 67 times for 302 yards in last season's 42-10 defeat where their only touchdown drive came against reserves in the fourth quarter.
The problem for Georgia, however, is that only three regulars -- Smith, cornerback Damian Swann and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins -- have played much against the Yellow Jackets' unique attack. It's entirely different from what Georgia's players and coaches see the rest of the season, so that real-time experience is valuable for all parties.
“But the bottom line, it gets down to players making plays, players executing, being where they need to be, playing with good pad level, playing physical and doing all the things you need to do to stop that kind of offense. Because it's really a team-oriented defense to play against, meaning you've got to take care of your assignment and trust someone's going to be somewhere else because if you don't do that, then you create a seam and that's when they get the explosive plays.”
Tech has largely been successful in that regard. As per usual under Coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets rank among the national leaders in rushing offense (fourth at 316.1 yards per game). They have scored 16 touchdowns -- 11 rushing, five passing -- that covered at least 20 yards and rushed for 200-plus yards in every game but one. In fact, they've rushed for more than 250 in all but their losses to Virginia Tech (129 yards) and BYU (237).
As long as Georgia's first-time starting quarterback Hutson Mason and his cohorts keep Georgia's high-scoring offense on track, the Bulldogs don't need to hold Tech to fewer than 200 rushing yards to win. If the Bulldogs keep grinding against Tech's deliberate attack and consistently arrive where they're supposed to be to make stops, they should survive.
“Everybody's got to do their job,” said Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, the SEC's leading tackler with 119 stops. “Me and Amarlo [Herrera], the inside-box guys, we've got to stop the dive. And we've got two outside linebackers that have got to stop the quarterback. And we've just got to make the plays. If we don't make the plays, we get gashed, so we've got to do our job and everything should be all right.”
That's easier said than done, however, as Muschamp can attest.
“You've got to have your offense moving and scoring because as long as [Tech's offense is] on track and on schedule, it's pretty effective,” Grantham said. “It's when there's a separation and they're off track, whether it be down-and-distance or score, then it becomes more difficult. So that's kind of a team thing right there. Fortunately we've been able to do that the last couple years. But it's a challenge to play it.”
It's a chilly one today, with No. 3 Georgia (10-1, 7-1 SEC) hosting archrival Georgia Tech (6-5). That just means a lot of running, and Georgia Tech has been pretty good at that all season with its triple-option attack. The Yellow Jackets rank third nationally in rushing, averaging 324.9 yards per game. That's impressive, and it could help them out even more today, considering the Bulldogs are giving up 150 yards on the ground per game.
However, Georgia Tech leading rusher Orwin Smith, who is averaging nine yards per carry, is dealing with a sprained right ankle. He suffered the injury in last week's win against Duke. The Yellow Jackets have depth at running back, but if Smith can't go or isn't 100 percent, that could really hurt this rushing attack against a defense that is playing at its best right now.
The Yellow Jackets have also been dealing with illness. A handful of players, including coach Paul Johnson, were sick all week.
This is a rivalry game, and anything could happen. But at the end of the day, Georgia just has too much talent and has too much riding on this game to slip up on senior day.
With a win, next week's SEC title game becomes a semifinal for the BCS National Championship. Yes, the Georgia Bulldogs could be down on South Beach in January for the Discover BCS National Championship Game, so this one means a lot, even if Georgia has the talent advantage on the field.
With it so chilly, it'll be interesting to see how much passing the Dawgs do. The Yellow Jackets might have won four of the past five, but Georgia Tech's defense has struggled this season, giving up nearly 400 yards a game and 251 passing yards a game. Georgia's Aaron Murray is averaging a cool 271 yards through the air a game.
He also has a wealth of talent at wide receiver and two extremely talented running backs. Expect to see a very balanced offense from the Dawgs today.
It helps the defense that Georgia saw a triple-option attack last week against Georgia Southern. This team won't be fooled by anything the Yellow Jackets try to do offensively.
But the teams in this league are making more of an attempt to play at least one marquee nonconference game a year.
Here’s my early ranking of the 10 toughest nonconference games involving an SEC team in 2010. There’s a chance this list could change some as we get closer to the season.
But for now, here goes:
1. Oregon at Tennessee, Sept. 11: The Ducks will start the season as a Top 5 team in just about every preseason poll. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli headlines a horde of returning starters for Chip Kelly’s club.
2. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 27: The Seminoles have a chance to be really good on offense with the return of quarterback Christian Ponder from a shoulder injury. If some young guys come through on defense, look out.
3. Penn State at Alabama, Sept. 11: The Nittany Lions lose a lot of good football players from their 2009 team. But it’s still Penn State, and it’s still JoePa. These two teams have played some classics over the years.
4. LSU vs. North Carolina (Atlanta), Sept. 4: We’ll find out soon enough if LSU has improved any on offense. The Tigers open the season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against a North Carolina defense that’s fast, talented and nasty.
5. Georgia Tech at Georgia, Nov. 27: Going against Paul Johnson’s option offense is always a challenge, and the Yellow Jackets will be extra motivated after being spanked at home last season by the Bulldogs.
6. West Virginia at LSU, Sept. 25: The Mountainers will have to plug in a new starter at quarterback, but the core of the offense and defense returns. This is a team that could easily win the Big East title in 2010.
7. Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas), Oct. 9: This might end up being a 52-50 game with the way these two offenses score points. If the Aggies tighten up on defense, they’ll be a dangerous team next season.
8. Vanderbilt at Connecticut, Oct. 2: The Commodores hit the road to face a Connecticut team that may be the sleeper pick in the Big East. The Huskies lost just six starters from a team that blasted South Carolina in the bowl game.
9. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 27: Speaking of the Gamecocks, they end the 2010 season by traveling to arch-rival Clemson. It hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses for South Carolina the last decade at Death Valley.
10. Clemson at Auburn, Sept. 18: We’ll dub this the Lewis Grizzard Bowl. Clemson won’t have C.J. Spiller to lean on next season, but the Tigers still have enough talent to line up and beat just about anybody they play.
Noting: LSU is the only SEC team to have two games on this list, and they're both the first month of the season. ... Kentucky, Mississippi State and Ole Miss don't play nonconference games that made the Top 10. Kentucky's toughest game is at Louisville. Mississippi State's toughest game is at Houston. Ole Miss' toughest game is a push between a trip to Tulane and a home game against Fresno State. ... In addition to the Georgia Tech game, Georgia also travels to Colorado in 2010. ... Of the SEC's 10 toughest nonconference games, notice that Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are the only three teams playing true road games. Even then, Florida and South Carolina don't leave their respective states.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
As Auburn shuffles through the potential candidates to replace Tommy Tuberville, the new names pop up by the day, while others get lucrative deals to stay where they are.
The latest name to enter the picture is Turner Gill of Buffalo, and it's about time that Gill got a legitimate shot when you look at what he's done at Buffalo in turning around that program.
It also appears that Georgia Tech is going to do what it can to keep first-year coach Paul Johnson off Auburn's radar.
Ole Miss' Houston Nutt has already had his contract sweetened to the $2.5 to $2.8 million range after his name came up in the Auburn search. It also sounds like the Florida State president isn't too keen on letting coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher out of his pricey buyout to be a player in the Auburn search.
So for the time being, keep your eyes on Gill.