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Bowlapalooza 2015: TaxSlayer Bowl Preview - Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Georgia Bulldogs

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We hope this isn't the final game of the season to feature a Big Ten team.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State is matched up against Georgia for the first time since the 1983 Sugar Bowl. In that game, the Nittany Lions triumphed 27-23 to clinch their first national championship. Townie can probably tell you more about that one since he was alive during it.

Townie: I was in seventh grade in 1982. My social studies teacher assigned homework every weekend... but if Penn State won, it was extra credit. We all got A's and I quit doing my homework by Week 6.

That Sugar Bowl win is the stuff of legend among the "older" PSU fans. The Georgia team was incredibly talented. It featured Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker. Defensive end Jimmy Payne (what a great name!) and tight end Norris Brown both went on to the NFL after that season. The Bulldogs began the season ranked No. 7 in the nation. By week seven, they were No. 3 and No. 1 by Week 10.

Penn State began the season at No. 8 in the nation. After a close win against Boomer Esiason's Maryland Terrapins, we beat No. 2 Nebraska in Week 4. That pushed us from No. 8 to No. 3 for a game in Birmingham against Bear Bryant's fourth-ranked Alabama squad.

They killed us.

However, we played several other highly ranked teams that season... No. 13 West Virginia, No. 13 Notre Dame, and No. 5 Pittsburgh. The win against Pitt put Penn State as a solid No. 2 in the nation and in line for a date with Georgia.

That Penn State team was loaded with talent. Todd Blackledge at quarterback, Ron Heller blocking, Scott Radicek at linebacker, Curt Warner at tailback, Walker Lee Ashley on the D-line, Kenny Jackson at wide receiver, and Mike Zordich at defensive back.

What a team. What a great game. It was close all the way. We won on Greg Garrity's late grab (dubbed "The Catch") in the end zone. The fans tore down the goal posts and carried them through the town the night we won. I remember kids bringing sections into school.

Yeah, I remember that game.

Where is this bowl game?

AY: It's in Jacksonville, Florida at EverBank Field. Georgia should be familiar with its surroundings since the program plays Florida in this stadium every year. I'll be visiting for the first time, but the weather will be probably be colder than it was in New Jersey last week. Townie lives in Florida! Anything good about Jacksonville?

Townie: I live just north of Jax on Amelia Island, so I know the city. EverBank Field is cool, even though the Jags suck. The stadium boasts the largest scoreboards in the world. At 363 feet by 78 feet, they are only slightly smaller than the Times Square board at the Marriott in Times Square. And they are super crisp.

For beer drinkers, I'm a fan of a couple of local breweries. Bold City, which makes Dukes Brown Ale, is good. Intuition Ale Works is another great local brewery. They make Jon Boat, I-10 IPA and several others that you will find featured on draft at Jacksonville bars.

The place to go is The Landing, a collection of shops, bars, and restaurants on the St. Johns riverfront.

If you have time (and a car) head out to Mayport. At the mouth of the St. Johns, it hosts a major Naval base as well as a major shrimp fishery. While most tourists know Singleton's Seafood Shack, thanks to that TV show "Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives," locals go to Safe Harbor. Get the fried shrimp basket or the po' boy. You'll thank me later.

When is the game?

AY: January 2, 2016. All the excitement of the College Football Playoff semifinals will have passed and we'll be left with a handful of games to fill the Saturday slate. The Lions and Bulldogs kick off the action at noon ET and 11 a.m. CT.

Who is in the game?

AY: Penn State (7-5) and Georgia (9-3) will be playing in this game. Although the Lions were hoping for a 10-win season back in September and the Bulldogs had aspirations of winning their division, the two took their lumps and are stuck with each other now. There will be a lot of familiar players, such as PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg and UGA tailback Sony Michel, but also some unfamiliar coaches.

Passing game coordinator Bryan McClendon will serve as the interim head coach for Georgia following the departure of Mark Richt at the end of the regular season. The Bulldogs will also be missing defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who left to take the same position at Alabama after Kirby Smart vacated that job to become the new head coach at Georgia.

Penn State recently hired Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to take over as offensive coordinator, but he won't be available for the bowl game. Instead, passing game coordinator Ricky Rahne will handle former OC John Donovan's duties.

What's in it for the participants?

AY: Neither team has something that can be considered a "statement' win to stand behind when we look back at the 2015 campaign. Penn State's only victory over a team with a winning record was versus Mountain West foe San Diego State. The closest Georgia came to defeating a winning team was a 20-13 win over 6-6 Auburn. Now both squads have a chance to post a quality result over a major-conference opponent. That's all we can ask for after they whiffed on their opportunities to beat good teams during the first 12 games.

Townie: This is the last game for Joe Paterno's last class of recruits and it's likely to be Christian Hackenberg's last game as a Nittany Lion. Coach Hype will have them fired up for the game.

For Georgia, the players are in a state of flux. The coaching staff is mostly gone. The fans don't seem all that excited to play in Jacksonville... it could be a lackluster effort from the Dawgs.

What's in it for the fans?

AY: They get to watch football in a supposedly warmer climate than they're used to. In reality, the weather in Jacksonville will probably be mild (around 60 degrees) and the football will be as well. Both teams are going to want to run the ball against defenses that are pretty good at stopping it. An explosive rush by Michel or Saquon Barkley could be the difference.

When the ball is in the air, Hackenberg and wide receiver Chris Godwin have a better chance to pick up big chunks of yardage than Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert, but Lambert has been able to move the ball more efficiently. The Virginia transfer has competed 64 percent of his passes this year for 7.8 yards per attempt, while Hackenberg has completed 53 percent of his throws for 6.9 yards per attempt.

Townie: Water temp is 68 degrees. Air is in the 80s (currently). I surfed several times this week in shorts (no wetsuit). Take advantage of the warm winter to go to the beach. Definitely eat the shrimp (and oysters). Take a walk on the St. Johns river front. Take a ride up to Amelia to sneak in to a PSU practice (they hold them at the high school... same as Iowa did last year).

Bullet points that don't fit the above, but should fill in some more details

  • The first 68 iterations of this game were called the Gator Bowl. TaxSlayer.com took over as the primary sponsor for the January 2012 Gator Bowl before getting the whole name to itself for the 2014 game. This year will be the 71st time that the TaxSlayer/Gator Bowl is being played.
  • Penn State previously played in the game in 1961, 1962, 1967, and 1976. Georgia played in 1948, 1971, 1989, and 2014.

The pick

AY: Georgia is currently favored by six-and-a-half, but these teams feel a lot closer than that. Still, it's tough to pick Penn State to win a game against a team that is better at moving the chains. The Lions can tilt the odds in their favor with a big play or two but... Georgia wins 20-17.

Townie: I've seen Georgia play a few times this year. I watched some lackluster efforts against modest defenses. I think PSU has a great chance in this game. It'll depend on how Georgia will react to losing its coaching staff. Losing Richt will hurt their game planning, which means Hackenberg and Barkley could have a big day. I'm going full, unabashed homer on my pick: PSU 28, UGA 10.