Change happens fast amid an ongoing pandemic, especially in the sports world. Weeks ago, the story of Michigan State’s first Peach Bowl appearance seemed centered on Mel Tucker’s fast turnaround for the team from East Lansing.
Tucker’s Spartans indeed smashed expectations all season long, though oddsmakers initially situated the Spartans as underdogs in Georgia.
With kickoff inching closer, the storylines have changed. Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State’s star running back and Heisman Trophy candidate, opted out of the game. So did fellow Heisman candidate Kenny Pickett, who quarterbacked his Pittsburgh Panthers to a 10-2 regular-season finish and ACC title win.
In addition, increasing COVID-19 cases across the country have already moved games and paused seasons from college sports to the pros.
Assuming safety concerns are satisfied and the game goes on, can Michigan State rise above the background noise to cap Tucker’s breakthrough season with a win?
Peach Bowl Odds: Michigan State vs. Pittsburgh
How to watch the Peach Bowl: No. 10 Michigan State Spartans vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh Panthers
- What: Michigan State (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) vs. Pittsburgh (11-2, 7-1 ACC)
- When: 7 p.m., ET, Dec. 30
- Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
- TV: ESPN (Announcers: Mark Jones, Robert Griffin III, Quint Kessenich)
- Radio: Spartan Media Network
Odds shift in Michigan State’s favor
After the end of regular-season play, early odds from Michigan’s online sportsbooks situated Pitt as an early favorite over Michigan State. With about a week to go until the Peach Bowl kickoff, however, odds now have shifted to slightly favor Michigan State.
The Spartans went 8-3-1 against the spread this season, while the Panthers were 8-4. Until now, Pittsburgh was the favorite in all of its matchups this season, including against Wake Forest.
BetMGM has the most profitable moneyline for Michigan State bettors at -135. Those looking to wager on Pitt can find the best moneyline at FanDuel and DraftKings for +120.
Before the Pickett and Walker III announcements, Michigan oddsmakers predicted an over/under ranging from 62.5 to 64 points. Those predictions now veer lower. FanDuel predicted the lowest outcome at 55.5 points, and BetMGM set the new high at 57 points.
Oddsmakers aren’t the only group sharing predictions. Check out these guesses from “experts” at the Atlanta Zoo.
Walker III big part of MSU’s success
Tucker and his squad demolished dismal expectations with a 10-2 regular-season finish and a No. 10 College Football Playoff ranking.
The second-year head coach also joined a list of just two Michigan State skippers, Duffy Daugherty and Mark Dantonio, to win 10 regular-season games.
Michigan State stayed ranked in the top 10 for most of the second half of the season, and Tucker secured a 10-year, $95 million contract extension for his efforts in turning around the program.
The Spartans finished the regular season averaging about 32 points a game, nearly double their average of 18 points last season. But how much will Walker III’s absence affect that total? The Heisman candidate carried the ball 263 times for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Quarterback Payton Thorne and receiver Jayden Reed are the top two remaining offensive leaders heading into the matchup.
Thorne finished the regular season with 206 completions on 339 tries. He threw for 2,886 yards and 24 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He added 177 rushing yards and four scores on the ground.
Reed had 52 catches for 946 yards and eight touchdowns.
Panthers must regroup offense
The Panthers capped their 10-win regular season with a sound 45-21 victory over Wake Forest for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Following the ACC title game, the Panthers were scoring an average of 43 points. Of course, that’s when they had quarterback Pickett, whose 4,319 passing yards were good for fifth in the nation.
Although they’ll need a retool on offense, they still have an “old friend” tie that may prove helpful, as Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi was Michigan State’s defensive coordinator for eight seasons from 2007-2014.
Michigan State dominates short, dated history against Pitt
Michigan State and Pittsburgh have played each other just seven times: in 1945, 1950, 1951, 1958, 1960, 2006 and 2007.
The Spartans have six wins, with the other result being a tie in 1960. Michigan State won the most recent meeting 17-13 on Sept. 15, 2007, in East Lansing. It’s the first time the teams have faced each other in the offseason.
LSU beat Florida State 31-27 when the Peach Bowl debuted in 1968. Chick-fil-A became a sponsor for the game in 1997, and that sponsorship has continued. From 2006 until 2013, the annual bowl game was referred to as the Chick-fil-A Bowl.