TAMPA, Fla. -- Through a quirk of seating assignments, Michigan State tight end Brian Linthicum sat in front of someone he knew on a flight to south Florida for the Outback Bowl: Georgia tight end Aron White.
During the next few days, Linthicum’s Spartans have been around the Bulldogs at numerous functions. But even though the teams have a lot in common, the Spartans didn’t really know much about Georgia, their opponent Monday.
“Honestly there wasn’t a lot (we knew),” Linthicum said. “I think most of our focus is up in the north. We watch the SEC games; they’re usually at night so it’s kind of convenient. But not a whole lot of awareness. I feel like they flew under the radar as far as we were concerned. And all of a sudden they were in the SEC championship game, and doing well at the end of the year.”
Michigan State and Georgia aren’t quite strangers to each other. They met three years ago in the Capital One Bowl, with the Bulldogs coming out on top.
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In fact, the Spartans have lost 10 straight bowl games, a drought that gets plenty of attention in East Lansing. Perhaps that’s why the Spartans are three-point underdogs in the game, despite being ranked higher (No. 12 vs. No. 18 in the AP poll).
But the Spartans seem to have a healthy respect for Georgia, especially the Bulldogs’ defense.
“We’re excited because a lot of us have aspirations to play in the NFL and a lot of us have aspirations to move Michigan State into one of the top teams in the country,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins, a senior and an NFL prospect. “And to do that you’ve gotta be able to line up against NFL-type talent, you’ve gotta be able to play big-time teams like Georgia and prove that you belong.”
Michigan State’s defense is actually ranked fifth nationally, two spots behind Georgia. And there are plenty of other good defenses in the Big Ten. But Cousins said the Bulldogs would have “one of the best, if not the best defense in the Big Ten.”
Cousins got a few snaps in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, but he granted that this Georgia defense is on a different level than the one he faced back then.
“When you look at their team they’re big, they’re fast, they’re everything you look for in a defense,” Cousins said. “Obviously the headliner is No. 29 with the way he’s played on the edge all year. What’s impressive about him is he wasn’t really a big name starting the season. So when you don’t even have the hype to start and you finish with all the accolades and the attention he’s received, it shows how good of a player he really is. He’s as good a player as we’ve played all year, and he’ll be a whale to contain.”
There’s also familiarity in Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, at least with Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio. The two were both on Nick Saban’s staff at Michigan State in the late 1990s, working together in the same room for three years, and Dantonio described Grantham as a very good friend.
“Obviously he brings a lot of energy to the game,” Dantonio said. “He believes in an aggressive form of play. I think he’s a technician. He teaches very well, is a great teacher, and he’s a great technician. You see that with Georgia’s football team.”
A matchup between teams from the SEC and Big Ten usually brings to mind the stereotypes of each conference -- the SEC with speed and athleticism and the Big Ten with physical and plodding play.
But the Spartans don’t buy into that.
“I feel like those are outdated types of opinions,” Linthicum said. “As college football continues to progress you see the major conferences having skill and power, a good mixture and especially with our team, our D-line is massive. And yet we have guys like (receivers) B.J. (Cunningham) and Keshawn (Martin) who are extremely skillful and can play in any conference. You look at Georgia, they’re not all skill; they have a massive D-line. So it’s kind of growing to where the major conferences have a little bit of everything. More evenly matched.”
In fact, the Spartans and Bulldogs each enter this game with 10 wins, and both just lost in their conference title game. Dantonio also pointed out that Georgia is ranked in the top 10 in four different defensive categories, just like Michigan State.
So to the Spartans, this game is a measuring stick.
“Georgia’s more of a team that we compare to, and losing their championship game to a great LSU team, and us to Wisconsin, who is obviously very comparable to us, Georgia is a great measuring stick,” Linthicum said. “And if we’re able to get the job done, we’ll know we’ll be able to compete against good teams in major conferences.”
Rambo talks NFL
Georgia junior safety Bacarri Rambo said he received a third-round grade from the NFL drafty advisory board, which advises underclassmen before they make their decision on whether to leave or stay.
The grade clearly disappointed Rambo, who was named a first-team All-American by the AP.
“They just watch film. They don’t know my character. They don’t know what I do to come out,” Rambo said.
Rambo, who said he was “still 50-50” on whether to go pro, said the third-round grade would make him work harder.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve learned to accept criticism,” Rambo said. “I just take that and just learn from it. It just makes me a better person, a stronger person. I just take that and run with it, and it just motivates me, because it just makes me work even harder.”
Tight end Orson Charles also applied to the draft advisory board, but said he hasn’t heard back yet. Several other Bulldogs are considering the jump, including linebacker Cornelius Washington and cornerback Branden Smith.
Georgia vs. Michigan State
1 p.m., Monday (ABC)