Headed to Atlanta for Peach Bowl: Michigan State and Pittsburgh

The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will feature two teams making their first appearances in the 54-year history of the Atlanta bowl game: Michigan State and Pittsburgh.

Pitt, which won the ACC Championship game Saturday, and Michigan State, which finished third in the strong Big Ten East Division, will meet at 7 pm. Dec. 30 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN.

Pittsburgh is 11-2 after defeating Wake Forest 45-21 for the ACC title. Michigan State is 10-2 with wins over Michigan and Penn State but losses to Ohio State (by a 56-7 score Nov. 20) and Purdue.

“Both teams are on the rise,” Peach Bowl Inc. CEO Gary Stokan said Sunday. “That’s what you want in a bowl game.”

Guided by first-team all-ACC quarterback Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh is one of the most prolific offensive teams in college football. The Panthers rank third among FBS teams in scoring at 43 points per game and sixth in passing offense at 350.2 yards per game. By contrast, Michigan State’s defense ranks 130th -- last -- in FBS in passing yards allowed per game (337.7).

“We’re going to have to do a much better job on our pass defense,” Spartans coach Mel Tucker said. “We’ve got to tighten up some areas, we’ve got to get some guys back healthy, in order to be able to have a chance to contain (Pickett) and slow him down.”

Michigan State’s offense features running back Kenneth Walker, who ranks second nationally in rushing yards with 1,636.

“Our game will have two great offensive threats (in Pickett and Walker), who both should be in the New York as Heisman Trophy finalists, I would think,” Stokan said.

Michigan State was so pleased with its resurgent season overall that in late November the school announced the signing of Tucker to a 10-year, $95 million contract extension. Tucker, a former defensive coordinator under Kirby Smart at Georgia, is in his second season coaching the Spartans after one season as Colorado’s head coach.

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi is a former Michigan State defensive coordinator (2007-14).

“We’re excited, obviously, to be in this game,” Narduzzi said, “but ... it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. We’ve got a great opponent. It doesn’t matter that I coached there for a few years. That will not play into any role at all. ... There will be no emotions; it’s just another football game.”

Although the Peach Bowl is not a part of the College Football Playoff this season, the game’s matchup was determined by the same 13-member CFP selection committee that set the bracket for the four-team playoff. Here’s how Pittsburgh and Michigan State wound up Atlanta-bound:

-- After the four playoff teams were assigned to semifinals in the Cotton and Orange bowls – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Georgia, respectively – two bowls with conference tie-ins set their matchups. The Rose Bowl, which has contracts with the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, will pit No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Utah. The Sugar Bowl, which has contracts with the Big 12 and SEC, will match No. 7 Baylor against No. 8 Mississippi.

-- Next, the CFP committee placed the four highest-ranked remaining teams in the Fiesta and Peach bowls. The committee opted to pit No. 5 Notre Dame against No. 9 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta and No. 10 Michigan State against No. 12 Pittsburgh in the Peach. Of those four teams, the committee placed the two with the higher rankings in one game (the Fiesta) and the other two in the Peach, committee chairman Gary Barta said.

The Michigan State-Pittsburgh pairing represents the first Peach Bowl matchup of a Big Ten team against an ACC team since 1988, when Iowa played N.C. State. Michigan State is 6-0-1 all-time against Pitt, but the teams haven’t met since 2007.

Stokan said the Peach Bowl office has “probably less than 2,000 tickets still available” for the game, “and the teams have the rest.” Both teams’ coaches expressed confidence their fans will travel well to Atlanta.