And no, I'm not going to call it the Chik-fil-A Bowl, partly out of respect for tradition and partly because the Chik-fil-A at South DeKalb Mall wasn't open this morning when I was getting my driver's license renewed and thus, I was deprived the chicken biscuit that motivated me to get out of bed this morning. (Incidentally, I was in and out in ten minutes, which is the second straight time that I've had no problem getting my driver's license renewed. No one ever acknowledges the few occasions that state government shows itself the be efficient, so here's to you, State of Georgia! I digress.)
My initial caveat is that bowl games are inherently unpredictable for a host of reasons. The teams have been off for over a month, so it's possible that one or both will be stale when toe meets leather. With the hoopla surrounding bowl games, the preparation is totally different than for a normal game, further damaging the ability of players to focus. ("I know you're all tired after the knockwurst eating contest, but we have practice in ten minutes.") Seniors and NFL-bound juniors often approach bowl games with less than total intensity and with their minds elsewhere, so one or both teams might have players operating at half speed. Players sometimes return from winter break with Kuato bulging from their midsections as a result of Mama's cooking, adding another complication to the story.
I really should have passed on that last piece of pumpkin pie.
All that said, the bowl games this year have mostly followed form. Games that looked like mismatches beforehand like Oregon-BYU and Kansas State-Rutgers went like they were supposed to. Teams with lame duck coaches like Alabama and Arizona State played like you would expect them to: poorly. (I know the Tide came close against Oklahoma State, but who really thinks that their defense played up to its potential yesterday?) So maybe the better team really will win tomorrow night. And who is the better team? I'm glad you asked.
My initial inclination was to downplay the difference between Georgia and Virginia Tech because of Virginia Tech's "Bill Snyder's Wet Dream" schedule. With Southern Miss, Cincinnati, Kent State, and Northeastern comprising the non-conference slate and North Carolina and Duke, two of the worst BCS Conference teams, on the docket, Tech had six free wins and it wasn't as if the rest of their ACC opponents will be confused with Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee any time soon. Then I thought for a second about Georgia's schedule and remembered that I thought before the season that it also had six free wins: the Mississippi teams, Vandy, Kentucky, Western Kentucky, and UAB. The difference is that Georgia actually lost to two of its gimme opponents, whereas Virginia Tech beat all of their tomato cans quite handily and only lost to Boston College and Georgia Tech, a pair of nine-win teams.
And then I started to look at the numbers for the teams and that's when I really started to conclude that Virginia Tech is a better outfit. For one thing, Sagarin's predictor rating (the one that takes margin-of-victory into account) has Tech as a nine-point favorite over Georgia. Virginia Tech is the #12 team in the country according to the predictor rating; Georgia is #37. For another thing, Virginia Tech's defensive numbers are truly outstanding. I know that they played few, if any competent offenses this year, but still. The Hokies have allowed 29 points in their last six games. They threw four shutouts this year, held seven opponents to single digits, and held ten of their 12 opponents to 13 or fewer points. They're #1 in the nation in scoring defense, total defense, and yards per play allowed. They're #2 in the nation in pass efficiency defense and yards per pass attempt allowed. Even with their sucky offense, they average 1.2 yards per play more than their opponents. Georgia, by comparison, outgains their opponents by .99 yards per play.
Crap, he's back at it with the number talk.
So when I'm thinking about this game, the hope for Georgia against a defense that will likely present major, major problems for Matthew Stafford is to force Sean Glennon to turn the ball over and to capitalize on short fields. Georgia beat Auburn and Georgia Tech because it took advantage of two sub-standard quarterbacks and Glennon isn't any better than Brandon Cox or...no, I'm not going to go that far. Unfortunately, it's not very likely that the Dawgs will dominate the Hokies in turnover margin. Georgia is 108th in the country in turnovers lost with 30; Virginia Tech is 32nd in the country (tied with Georgia) with 26 turnovers forced. Virginia Tech played extremely conservatively on offense this season, knowing that their defense could stop just about anyone from driving the length of the field, and thus, they didn't turn the ball over much (19 turnovers all year). (See: Tech's win over Virginia, which was stalemated trench warfare until Virginia made the first mistake with a critical turnover and then Tech bludgeoned the Cavs to death.) Tech was a team whose strategy and tactics jibed very well with the talent on hand. They had the perfect Frank Beamer team.
Georgia, on the other hand, ran Mark Richt's normal offense, with heavy use of the shotgun and multiple receiver sets. That was the right approach to take because: (1) Georgia's defense wasn't dominant and thus the offense didn't have the luxury of being conservative; (2) Georgia didn't play nearly as many dreadful offenses as Virginia Tech did; and (3) Matt Stafford is only going to get better if he has the opportunity to make the complicated reads that Richt's offense demands. Georgia does have more ability to come from behind that the Hokies do, so Georgia could profit greatly if they force turnovers early, take a lead, and force Virginia Tech to attempt to move the ball through the air. (See: Boston College and Georgia Tech games.) That said, it means that Georgia is likely to lose the turnover battle against the Hokies.
So that leaves Georgia with one other big hope for overcoming a superior opponent: dominating Virginia Tech on special teams. That oughta happen.
They do this a lot.
And another factor that should worry Georgia fans: look at what happened to the teams that played above themselves to win big rivalry games at the end of the season, namely UCLA and Texas A&M. Both of them upset their arch-rivals and clearly viewed those games as their big accomplishments for the season. Thus, they didn't take their bowl games seriously and laid huge eggs against Florida State and Cal, respectively. You think that Georgia might fall into the same category after they played far better against Auburn and Georgia Tech than they did for the rest of the season?
So in other words, no, I don't think that Georgia is going to win on Saturday night, but a loss won't erase the progress that Georgia made in the final games of the season and it won't mean that Matt Stafford is behind schedule or that the roof is collapsing on the program.
One aspect of the game that will interest me greatly is to see the approach that Georgia takes offensively. On the one hand, Richt might elect to be very conservative at the start, knowing that his defense can stop the Hokies and that avoiding turnovers is going to be critical. On the other hand, the combination of Neil Callaway (an offensive line guy) leaving, Mike Bobo (a quarterback guy) becoming the offensive coordinator and playcaller, and Matt Stafford being the future of the progam indicates that Georgia is going to be a more pass-oriented team in the coming years. Does this mean that Georgia is going to try to attack the Virginia Tech defense through the air? I don't think that the Hokies have seen an offense that effectively uses the tight end this year, so is the antidote to Tech's aggressive style heavy use of Martrez Milner over the middle? And have I turned into HeismanPundit by predicting the result of a game based on one team using its tight end more than the other? And if so, should I jump off the 17th Street Bridge or simply cower in my basement for a month?