How Kentucky and Georgia Tech match up position by position — with a game prediction:
Since Stephen Johnson’s stellar performance (338 yards and three TDs passing; team-best 83 yards rushing) in Kentucky’s 41-38 upset of then-No. 11 Louisville, the junior QB has been riding a crest of popularity. Can the 6-foot-2, 183-pound product of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., back up that strong showing with another sharp performance in the bowl? As a triple-option quarterback, Georgia Tech senior Justin Thomas is an adept runner (562 yards rushing, five TDs) and decision-maker. As he showed Vanderbilt in throwing for a TD of 81 yards, you can’t sleep on the 5-11, 185-pound redshirt senior as a passer, either.
Explosive Kentucky junior Boom Williams (1,135 yards rushing, seven TDs) and true freshman battering ram Benny Snell (1,057 yards, 13 TDs) form one of the best running back combos in the country. Look for UK to try to get senior Jojo Kemp (321 yards, six TDs), a DeLand, Fla., product, some touches in his home state. As befits a wishbone offense, Georgia Tech relies on a stable of backs. Dedrick Mills, a 5-10, 217-pound freshman, gets the tough inside yards (602 yards, 11 TDs). Clinton Lynch, a 6-foot, 187-pound sophomore, is Tech’s main weapon in the passing game (six of Tech’s nine receiving TDs). Sophomore Qua Searcy scored the Yellow Jackets’ game-winning TD on a 6-yard run with 30 seconds to play vs. Georgia. However, Tech’s leading rusher, sophomore Marcus Marshall (624 yards in 11 games), transferred to James Madison after the regular season.
After some late-season struggles, UK’s wide-outs came up big at Louisville. Garrett Johnson caught two long (75 and 63 yards) TD passes. Dorian Baker made a diving TD grab (35 yards). Jeff Badet had the 29-yard catch that ignited the game-winning drive. Ryan Timmons (four catches, 50 yards) extended drives. Georgia Tech’s most dangerous pass catcher is running back Clinton Lynch (six TDs on 16 catches). Wide-outs Ricky Jeune (22 catches) and Brad Stewart (17) lead the Yellow Jackets in receptions.
Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad, a 6-4, 245-pound sophomore, is UK’s fourth-leading receiver (16 catches, 248 yards, four TDs), while backup Greg Hart, a 6-5, 245 junior transfer from Nebraska, has six catches for 32 yards. Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson does not use a tight end in his offensive system.
The TaxSlayer Bowl will be the final outing for Kentucky senior center Jon Toth. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound Indianapolis product was named first-team All-SEC by The Associated Press. Of the nine offensive linemen Kentucky regularly rotates, guard Ramsey Meyers, a redshirt junior forfeiting his final season of eligibility, is the only other departing after this season. Georgia Tech center Freddie Burden, a 6-4, 299-pound redshirt senior, is the anchor of the Yellow Jackets offensive front and was third-team All-ACC.
Rush end Denzil Ware (seven tackles, one tackle for loss) and tackle Adrian Middleton (six tackles, one TFL) were productive in the win at Louisville. Georgia Tech tackle Patrick Gamble is the player Kentucky has to get blocked. The 6-5, 277-pound redshirt senior leads the Ramblin’ Wreck with 8.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
Kentucky WLB Jordan Jones finished the regular season with an even 100 tackles. The Youngstown, Ohio, product was named second-team All-SEC by the AP. MLB Courtney Love had the fumble recovery that set up the game-winning UK drive at U of L. Though Georgia Tech OLB P.J. Davis is undersized at 5-11, 231 pounds, the senior from Cairo, Ga., is effective (70 tackles in 10 games). A Knoxville, Tenn., product, sophomore MLB Brant Mitchell has a nose for the ball (68 tackles, two interceptions, a fumble recovery).
Advantage: Georgia Tech
Kentucky picked off soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson three times, with strong safety Mike Edwards getting two and nickelback Blake McClain one. The challenge for the UK secondary vs. Georgia Tech’s triple-option will be helping in ground support without allowing long Tech scoring passes as a result. Georgia Tech strong safety Corey Griffin leads the Yellow Jackets in tackles (79) and has two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Free safety A.J. Gray is fourth in tackles (64). Cornerback Lance Austin set up Tech’s game-winning drive at Georgia with an interception. The week before, he sealed a victory over Virginia with a pick-six.
Kentucky place-kicker Austin MacGinnis boomed his second game-winning field goal of the year at Louisville, beating the Cardinals from 47 yards after connecting from 51 yards to beat Mississippi State. On the season, MacGinnis is 15-of-18 on field goals, 5-of-6 from outside 40 yards. UK true freshman punter Grant McKinniss (39.5 yards a kick) has struggled. Georgia Tech’s special teams are strong. Place-kicker Harrison Butker is 11-of-13 on field goals, though his range is limited (long of 42 yards). Punter Ryan Rodwell averages 43.4 yards a kick, and punted three times for a robust 51.7 yards average vs. Georgia. J.J. Green had a 96-yard kickoff return for a TD vs. Pittsburgh.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
Kentucky 38, Georgia Tech 34