Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III were the two marquee names heading into this bowl game. Both players were Heisman finalists and are now heading for the NFL Draft and skipping the Peach Bowl. Walker beat Pickett to the punch by announcing earlier on Thursday, but Pickett’s announcement came hours later.
Oh what could’ve been, Michigan State. The Spartans controlled their postseason fate into November before losses to Purdue and Ohio State derailed those chances. But a 10-2 regular season with a New Year’s Six appearance remains impressive, especially considering Mel Tucker’s team went 2-5 last year. A big reason for the major turnaround was Walker’s transfer to East Lansing. Walker won the Doak Walker Award after running for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. His absence will have a big impact on MSU’s offense.
Meanwhile, Michigan State’s pass defense was a leading cause in both of its losses. Its 337.7 yards per game allowed ranked dead last among FBS teams. Pittsburgh is a top-3 scoring team this year, led by (you guessed it) the No. 6 passing attack in college football.
The Panthers, on the other hand, won their conference and did so in a way few could’ve predicted. Pittsburgh forced four turnovers and shut Wake Forest out in the second half of its 45-21 win in the ACC title game. Pickett added 253 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, but that win really belonged to the defense, which is such a stark contrast of Pitt’s season. This is the same team that gave up 44 points to Western Michigan. Now remember, Pitt does defend the run well. But the story this year has been Pitt’s offense. That side of the ball produces over 500 yards per game and 43 points per game. Michigan State is already prone to giving up a lot through the air. If the Panthers defend the Spartans the way they did the Demon Deacons, this game might not be all that close.
Pitt opened as a small favorite for this game, but the uncertainty around Pickett and Walker resulted in some chaos with the lines. The odds have moved and have been taken off the board at times while everyone waited for their decisions. With both players out, Michigan State is favored. The Peach Bowl is set for a 7 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPN on Thursday, Dec. 30.