Motivation is often an issue in bowl games, but it shouldn't be a problem for Georgia Tech as the Yellow Jackets (8-4, 5-3 ACC) prepare to face Utah (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) in the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl.
There's a lot at stake.A loss would be Tech's fourth in its final five games, and would be the program's second straight sputtering finish. A loss would extend Tech's bowl losing streak to seven and leave senior captains Roddy Jones and Steven Sylvester without a bowl win. A loss would lend credence to critics who attributed Tech's 6-0 start to scheduling.A win would enable Tech to claim its severely outpaced expectations. After all, this team was picked to finish fourth in the Coastal Division and ended up tied for second. And a win would build momentum for a young team that should return 16 starters.
While Utah doesn't boast a gaudy record, the Utes were in contention for the Pac-12 South division title until an upset loss to Colorado on Nov. 25.
Utah ranks seventh nationally in rushing defense, allowing 97 yards per game. The Jackets rank third nationally in rushing, averaging 316.8 yards per game. Utah ranks 18th in points allowed (19.7), while the Jackets rank 34th in scoring (34.9).
Conventional wisdom has it that teams with extra time to prepare are more successful in slowing the option. Coach Paul Johnson gets another chance to prove people wrong, but it will come against a stout defense.
It will be interesting to see if Johnson uses backup quarterback Synjyn Days in the bowl game. Days relieved ineffective starter Tevin Washington in the regular-season finale against Georgia and led Tech on a touchdown drive. Days has a stronger arm and is a faster runner than Washington, but Days has had fumbling issues. With both quarterbacks scheduled to return next season, and with true freshman quarterback Vad Lee redshirting, the Sun Bowl could serve as the start of the competition for next year's starting job.
--The only previous meeting between Georgia Tech and Utah came in the 2005 Emerald Bowl -- a 38-10 Utes victory in San Francisco, Cal.
--Tech is appearing in its 15th straight bowl and trying to end a six-game bowl losing streak.
--Tech is playing in the Sun Bowl for the first time since beating Texas Tech in the 1970 event.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--Junior G Omoregie Uzzi was named to the All-ACC first team. He anchors a line that helped the Jackets rank third nationally in rushing (316.8 yards per game). When Uzzi dominates, the other linemen feed off him and elevate their games, too.
--OLB Jeremiah Attaochu leads the team with six sacks and ranks second with 8.5 tackles for loss. He's easily Tech's best pass rusher. Teams that have slowed him down have given their QB plenty of time to throw, with predictable results. The Jackets mustered only 20 sacks all season.
--QB Synjyn Days, who had fumbling problems early this season, got his chance in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale vs. Georgia and looked good. Replacing an ineffective Tevin Washington, Days hit 3 of 5 throws for 78 yards and led a TD drive. Days should get an opportunity in the bowl game as coaches evaluate personnel for next season. Washington, Days and true freshman Vad Lee, who redshirted, likely will compete for the job in 2012.
--WR Stephen Hill averages 30.2 yards a catch, most in the FBS. Nine of his 26 grabs went for at least 40 yards. However, he's also had a few bad drops. When Hill is involved in the offense, the Jackets are nearly impossible to beat. When coaches don't call his number, Tech is much easier to defend.
BOWL HISTORY: The Jackets are trying to snap a six-game bowl skid, including last year's 14-7 loss to Air Force in the Independence Bowl. Tech is making its 15th straight bowl appearance, tied for the fourth-longest active streak. Only Florida State, Florida and Virginia Tech have longer current streaks. Georgia Tech is 22-17 all-time in bowl games, tied for the 10th-most bowl victories.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our players worked hard this season and we're excited to have another game to play. We will face a very good Utah team that played its best football down the stretch." -- Coach Paul Johnson's statement on the Sun Bowl bid.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Coach Paul Johnson's option attack rolled up 316.8 yards rushing per game, ranking third nationally. Junior A-back Orwin Smith averaged 10.3 yards per carry and scored a touchdown once every 5.45 carries (11 TDs, 60 attempts). But opponents forced QB Tevin Washington to keep the ball often, because Washington is less explosive. The junior ran for 14 TDs but averaged 4.0 yards per carry.
Scouting the passing game: After a hot start, the passing game collapsed. Washington did not complete more than 50 percent of his throws in any game after the Sept. 24 win over North Carolina. For the season, he completed 46.7 percent of his throws with 10 TDs and 8 INTs. Backup Synjyn Days impressed in reserve duty against Georgia and could see significant time in the bowl game.
Scouting the run defense: The Jackets rank ninth in the ACC in run defense, allowing 163.2 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. Tech has been pushed around up front, but ILB Julian Burnett, a second-team All-ACC selection, has been outstanding against the run. He leads the team with 113 tackles (9.4 per game).
Scouting the pass defense: Tech has 13 INTS after getting just eight last season. Jemea Thomas made fourth-quarter picks to seal wins over Clemson and Duke. Despite poor games against Virginia Tech and Georgia, the secondary has been a strength. However, corners Thomas, Rod Sweeting and Louis Young have been asked to cover for too long due to the lack of a pass rush.
Scouting the special teams: K Justin Moore has made his last five FG tries and is 9 of 13 this season. The Jackets are in the middle of the ACC pack in punting but 10th in kickoff coverage, with an average net of 42.2 yards. Tech is also below average in kick and punt returns.
Intangibles: Not much was expected of the Jackets, who were picked fourth in the Coastal Division. They started 6-0, lost four of their last six, and finished tied for second in the division. Aside from an upset of Clemson, Tech does not own any impressive wins. Tech needs a bowl victory to consider this season a success. Senior captains Roddy Jones and Steven Sylvester are hungry for their first bowl win.
--Backup QB Synjyn Days impressed in relief of Tevin Washington in the regular-season finale vs. Georgia. If Days has a good few weeks of practice, he could get a lot of snaps in the bowl game.
--In addition to G Omoregie Uzzi (All-ACC First Team) and ILB Julian Burnett (Second Team), OLB Jeremiah Attaochu and CB Rod Sweeting earned honorable mention All-ACC. Attaochu has a team-high six sacks despite missing two games with an ankle injury. Sweeting ranks third on the team in tackles and leads the Jackets with nine pass break-ups. He also has three INTs.
--Ten true freshmen have played this season, the most in coach Paul Johnson's four-year tenure. The Jackets are an extremely young team. There are 10 scholarship seniors on the roster; two start on offense and four on defense.