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The Peach Bowl had a nice matchup, complete with marquee offensive stars, when it announced that No. 10 Michigan State would be facing No. 12 Pittsburgh on Dec. 30.

But then the teams’ star players opted out of the game to guard against injury and to prepare for the NFL draft.

Michigan State (10-2) won’t have premier running back Kenneth Walker III, recipient of the Doak Walker and Walter Camp Player of the Year awards.

Pittsburgh (11-2) will be without Kenny Pickett, potentially the top quarterback prospect in the draft.

Their now-former college teams will still face each other Thursday night at Atlanta.

Walker finished the regular season with 1,636 rushing yards (136.3 yards per game), ranking second in the country.

“He always gave us everything he had,” coach Mel Tucker said. “He’s a tremendous player and a difference maker and that’s reflected in the awards he did receive. … If it’s not in their best interests to play, I’m going to support them.”

Pickett exploded onto the national scene in his senior season, throwing for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns while leading the Panthers to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. He finished third in Heisman Trophy voting, three spots above Walker.

“I can’t help it if guys end up opting out,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Everybody’s got to make a decision on their own, but bowl games are outstanding for the team, the coaches and the families. It’s part of the game everybody should enjoy.”

The Spartans likely will replace Walker with a combination of running backs, including Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins.

They also have a solid passing attack behind quarterback Payton Thorne, whose 24 touchdown passes are one shy of the school’s single-season record (set by Kirk Cousins in 2011). Wide receiver Jayden Reed caught eight of those scoring passes, while his 53 receptions averaged 17.9 yards per catch.

Tucker might also get some freshmen and sophomores ready for next season.

“There’s going to be opportunities to give more reps to some younger players,” he said. “Some guys who maybe haven’t played as much, they’ll show up in the game.”

Tucker was rewarded with a 10-year, $95-million extension after his second season at Michigan State. After a 2-5 mark in the pandemic-wracked 2020 campaign, the Spartans won their first eight games of 2021, capped by a triumph over archrival and eventual Big Ten-champion Michigan.

Losses to Purdue (40-29) and Ohio State (56-7) prevented them from reaching the Big Ten Championship Game but they ended the season with a 30-27 victory over Penn State.

“People are taking note of what we’re doing here at East Lansing,” Tucker said. “The tide is turning and we’re moving in the right direction.”

Pittsburgh’s losses came against Miami and nonconference opponent Western Michigan. The Panthers finished strong, winning their last five games, including a 45-21 romp past Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game.

Nick Patti will get the start at quarterback in place on Pickett.

“Nick is a guy that this entire room trusts,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a good football player. He can throw the ball. … We’re excited to see what Nick (can do). It’s his time in this game to show everybody who he is.”

Patti attempted only 14 passes this season but completed 12 of them for 140 yards.

He’ll have Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison as a prime target. The sophomore wideout caught 93 passes for 1,479 yards and a national-best 17 TDs.

One common opponent is Miami: Michigan State handled the Hurricanes in Miami on Sept. 18, 38-17; the Panthers lost at home against Miami, 38-34, on Oct. 30.

–Field Level Media