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No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Pitt: Peach Bowl preview, best bets

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Peach Bowl: No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Pitt

Location: Atlanta | Time: 8 p.m. ET (Dec. 30) | Line: MSU -2.5 | Total: 56

How these teams got here

Michigan State (10-2): The Spartans have the transitory edge over Pitt with a Week 3 win over Miami. That was the first big win of the season for Michigan State as the team started 8-0 after a 37-33 win over Michigan in the final week of October.

The dream start came crashing to a halt against Purdue on Nov. 6 with a 40-29 loss. Two weeks later, Michigan State was blown out 56-7 at Ohio State and eliminated from Big Ten title contention. The Spartans rebounded in the final week of the season for a 30-27 win over Penn State to get to 10 wins on the season.

Pitt (11-2): The Panthers averaged 43 points per game — a 14-point increase from 2020. Pitt also averaged 6.5 yards per play as the offense was led by the stellar Kenny Pickett, a Heisman finalist. He threw for 4,319 yards and 42 TDs to just seven interceptions while completing 67% of his passes. The Peach Bowl is not your opportunity to see Pickett, however. He opted out of the game to prep for the NFL draft. Backup QB Nick Patti will get the start on Thursday night.

Pitt’s also entering the Peach Bowl on a five-game win streak after a win over Wake Forest in the ACC title game. The Panthers’ last loss of the season came on Oct. 30 in a 38-34 decision at home to Miami. Pitt was undefeated on the road in 2021 as the team’s only other loss — perhaps the most inexplicable defeat for any team in a New Year’s Six Bowl — came at home to Western Michigan in Week 3.

EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 27: Payton Thorne #10 of the Michigan State Spartans talks with his team at the line of scrimmage against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Spartan Stadium on November 27, 2021 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Michigan State QB Payton Thorne has thrown for 2,886 yards and has 28 total TDs this season. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Players to know

Michigan State QB Payton Thorne: The Peach Bowl is the best argument for an expanded playoff. If this was a game that was part of a 12-team tournament for the national title, we’d get players like Pickett and MSU RB Kenneth Walker III participating. Instead, we don’t get to see two of the best players in college football as they (rightfully) begin to prep for their pro careers.

Thorne has completed 61% of his passes for 2,886 yards and has 28 total TDs this season. He’s played a complementary role to Walker all season and now emerges as the key player for the MSU offense. Can he step up?

Pitt WR Jordan Addison: Pickett and Addison formed the best QB-WR combination in the country in 2021. The Biletnikoff Award winner enters the Peach Bowl with 93 catches for 1,479 yards and 17 TDs. No other Pitt player had more than 46 catches, 654 receiving yards or six receiving touchdowns. We’ll see if Addison can form a quick connection with Patti, especially with No. 2 WR Taysir Mack also opting out of the bowl game. Patti has thrown just 14 passes all season.

SYRACUSE, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Pittsburgh Panthers Wide Receiver Jordan Addison (3) runs with the ball after making a catch during the second half of the College Football game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Syracuse Orange on November 27, 2021, at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Pittsburgh wide receiver Jordan Addison has 93 catches for 1,479 yards and 17 TDs this year. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What’s on the line

Michigan State: The Spartans are looking for their first major bowl win since a Cotton Bowl victory at the end of the 2014 season. Michigan State made the College Football Playoff the following season but was blown out by Alabama in a return trip to the Cotton Bowl.

An 11th win would be the first for head coach Mel Tucker and the first season with 11 wins or more for the Spartans since that 2015 playoff season. Michigan State has won 10 or more games in five of the past 10 seasons — a remarkable accomplishment given that the program has a record of 26-32 in the other five seasons.

Pitt: The Panthers haven’t won 12 games in a season since an undefeated 12-0 season in 1976 under Johnny Majors. That season ended with a win in the Sugar Bowl as part of a run of six bowl wins in seven seasons.

Pitt’s bowl fortunes haven’t been as good recently. The Panthers’ 2019 Quick Lane Bowl win was their first since winning the same game when it was known as the Little Caesars Bowl in 2013. The Peach Bowl is the biggest bowl game for the program since a trip to the Fiesta Bowl after the 2004 season.

Picks

Nick Bromberg: I have no idea what to think about this game with Pickett and Walker out. That's why I'm inclined to go with the under. Pitt is also missing offensive coordinator Mark Whipple after he resigned earlier this month to go to Nebraska. I'm avoiding the line on this one. Pick: Under 55.5

Sam Cooper: To me, the absence of Kenny Pickett for Pitt is far more significant than Michigan State being without Kenneth Walker III. The fact that Pitt's staff recruited Kedon Slovis for next year instead of handing the reins to Nick Patti says a lot. Jalen Nailor being available to play for MSU is a big deal, too. He's a big-play threat whenever he gets the ball. Pick: MSU -2.5

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