Mississippi State snuck into postseason play after two dramatic overtime wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss. This is the fourth-consecutive bowl game for Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs which is a first in MSU history. They now prepare for their third trip to the Liberty bowl and first since beating Central Florida in 2007. State is set to take on the C-USA Champs in Rice on New Year's Eve.
Who: Rice (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (6-6) in the Liberty Bowl
Where: Memphis, Tenn. ; Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium
When: Tuesday, December 31, 2013; 3:00 on ESPN
Series Record: Rice leads, 1-0; The last time: MSU, 28-14, 1969 in Starkville (MSU lost by forfeit)
State is in a much better place than they were a year ago despite the fact that they enter the bowl game with two less wins than 2012. MSU came into the Gator Bowl last year losing four out of five games. The 7-0 start was completely forgotten as MSU lost to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and limped into the final game against Northwestern. It showed on the field as State never really got into a rhythm and lost the game.
This year, the Bulldogs flipped the script. Much more competitive ball games with Alabama and Texas A&M and as good of three quarters that they've played in a while against LSU meant that they were moving forward despite not racking up wins. With a much more upbeat attitude, MSU won two-straight games in exciting fashion against Arkansas and Ole Miss to meet the C-USA champs in Memphis.
As we prepare for kickoff, we have three keys to victory for the Bulldogs to beat the Owls and win their third bowl game in four years. Let Prescott control the game, Force the Owls to beat you through the air, Make plays in Special Teams.
Let Prescott control the game : A month ago, the Bulldogs weren't sure if they would see quarterback Dak Prescott again this year. When the sophomore dressed for the Egg Bowl, however, the fans were a bit more relieved and Prescott came in during the fourth quarter to lead State to an overtime win. With a month of rest under his belt, Prescott should be fully healthy and ready to go today.
MSU has a distinct advantage with Prescott running things and they're up against a defense that has struggled up front and at linebacker at times. State should hold the upper hand getting a push upfront with the offensive line and running the read option opens up the offense to have a big day. If Prescott is having success, it could be a good sign of things to come for MSU not only in the Liberty Bowl, but in the future.
Force the Owls to beat you through the air: Rice likes to run the football. This season, the Owls have used their star running back, Charles Ross, and quarterback Taylor McHargue to rush for over 3,000 yards. The Owls average 240 yards on the ground a game compared to just 185 through the air. MSU's defense has traditionally been set up to stop the run this season with strong play on the edge by their linebackers and defensive ends and bulk in the middle from Kaleb Eulls and Chris Jones.
With only 151 yards given up a game on the ground by the Bulldogs, something has to give. If State stacks the box to begin the game and brings pressure, Rice can become disoriented. Stopping the run can more than likely stop the Owls offense all together letting the Bulldog offense dictate what happens on the final scoreboard.
Make plays in special teams: Where do we start here? MSU has had more than a few problems in special teams this year, the latest coming against Ole Miss. Against the Rebels, State had three mishaps that could have been worse than they actually were. Right before halftime, Jameon Lewis fair caught a punt inside the 10 that was well on its way to the end zone. Four plays later, Baker Swedenburg had his punt blocked in the endzone and recovered for a touchdown to tie the game at the half. A missed field goal at the end of regulation by Evan Sobiesk could have given the Bulldogs instant victory, instead they had to win the game in overtime.
While those plays didn't hurt the Bulldogs in the long run, they were a part of the ever-growing elephant in the room that is special teams at MSU. For the Bulldogs to maintain a lead and get the win today, special teams is key and making smart decisions is important to their evolution as a unit.
Prediction: MSU has shown me that they're ready for this game. Throughout the last four weeks of the season and in bowl practices, MSU just seemed ready for big things. I think that the attitude and the fact that the Bulldogs are physically a better team will be enough to pull this one out. MSU, 34-17