1. Peach bowl offers good story lines, a so-so destination and a brutal matchup for MSU
If Michigan State hadn’t given Mel Tucker a fat contract extension, who knows, maybe Pat Narduzzi would be coaching the Spartans in the Peach Bowl this season. It’s still a pretty good storyline — MSU facing ACC-champion Pittsburgh and the Spartans' beloved former defensive coordinator in the Peach Bowl, a 7 p.m. kickoff on Dec. 30 in Atlanta.
MSU (10-2) finished No. 10 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, announced Sunday afternoon. Pitt (11-2), which beat Wake Forest in the ACC title game on Saturday night, is No. 12. There are several good storylines with this game, beginning with Narduzzi coaching against the Spartans. Narduzzi was the architect and spirit behind MSU’s best defenses of the Mark Dantonio era. He left to be Pitt’s head coach after the 2014 season, so he wasn’t around for the program’s slide into mediocrity, which I think adds to how fondly he’s remembered in East Lansing. Harlon Barnett, MSU’s current secondary coach and Narduzzi’s successor as defensive coordinator (along with Mike Tressell), will be on the opposing sideline. That's great stuff.
This game also has terrific star power — two Heisman Trophy candidates named Ken, in MSU’s Kenneth Walker and Pitt QB Kenny Pickett, along with dazzling receivers. How MSU slows Pickett and receiver Jordan Addison will be among the most meaningful storylines. Same for whether Walker and Co. can run the ball against the Panthers’ ACC-leading rush defense. The matchup for MSU, from a football perspective, isn’t great. Neither is the location. But this is still the first relevant, top-tier bowl game the Spartans have seen in six years. This a big deal.
2. A first glance at Pitt — Narduzzi’s squad is a tough matchup for MSU
Pittsburgh as an opponent doesn’t have quite the same cachet as say Notre Dame — even if the Narduzzi storyline is a good one — but this Pitt team will be a chore for MSU’s defense. The Panthers had the ACC’s best scoring offense this season at more than 43 points per game and averaged 350 passing yards per outing behind the arm of Heisman Trophy contender Kenny Pickett. Pickett could be a problem for MSU’s pass defense.
Pitt’s senior QB has thrown for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and just seven interceptions this year. His top receiver, Jordan Addison, has 93 catches for 1,479 yards and 17 touchdowns. Every aforementioned stat from Pickett and Addison would be an MSU single-season record. Defensively, Pitt’s strength is against the run, where the Panthers were tops in the ACC, allowing just 91.2 yards per game. They’ll give up some things in the passing game, however. I think the big question for MSU is whether it can avoid being shredded by Pickett and Co., more so than whether the Spartans can make hay against Narduzzi’s defense.
3. Peach Bowl was the second-best of MSU’s two options
Once Michigan and Cincinnati won Saturday, the Spartans were all but locked into a New Year’s Six bowl game. The only real question was whether they’d play in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 in Glendale, Arizona, or the Peach Bowl in primetime on Dec. 30 in Atlanta. The Fiesta Bowl is a better destination spot for a fan base that hasn’t had the chance to travel to a bowl game with juice in a while. Arizona over the holidays, that sounds good. Plus, while the Peach Bowl is every bit as old as the Fiesta Bowl, in modern times, the Fiesta Bowl has more oomph. It was part of the old BCS system and has been the host of national championship games and epic and memorable bowl games, like Boise State’s win over Oklahoma in 2007. It’s a game with some gravitas.
The Peach Bowl, around since 1968, has been part of the New Year’s Six games since they began in 2014. It’s no slouch. And Atlanta’s not a bad spot — and it's a fertile recruiting area for Mel Tucker and Co. It’s just not quite the same vacation spot as Arizona or Florida. The one plus is that MSU and Pitt will have the stage all to themselves on the night of Dec. 30 — a 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN. The Fiesta Bowl, on the other hand, is up against a number of other attractive New Year’s Day games. This Peach Bowl is still a heckuva cap to an incredible season and a big-time showcase opportunity.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan State football faces Pitt in Peach Bowl: 3 quick takes