Football: Why Mississippi State will win the Gator Bowl


Spruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw just six interceptions this season, compared to his 22 touchdown passes. He helped lead the Bulldogs to the 50th best passing attack in the country this year.

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

Mississippi State may not be an SEC powerhouse, but the Bulldogs, who climbed as high as 11th in the rankings this year, still pose a legitimate threat to Northwestern’s potential first bowl game win since 1949. If Mississippi State does topple NU in their New Year’s Day matchup, it will be for one of three reasons.

1. Mississippi State Can Pass

Many fans are led to believe SEC football consists of giant running backs crashing into even bigger defensive linemen, while the quarterbacks are glorified caretakers who only need to prevent turnovers.

Although last year’s national championship game lent credence to this theory, Mississippi State is not your typical SEC opponent.

The Bulldogs proved in the regular season they can pass the ball with consistency, finishing the year with the 50th ranked aerial attack in the nation. Quarterback Tyler Russell completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

The Wildcats struggled to stop the pass all year, with a young secondary oftentimes hampered with injuries. In each of the Cats’ three losses, the opposing quarterback dominated through the air. Penn State’s Matt McGloin, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Michigan’s Devin Gardner all torched the NU secondary en route to come from behind wins.

So even if NU builds up a big lead, Mississippi State’s passing attack can easily bring the Bulldogs back into the game.

2. The Bulldogs are battle-tested

No two college football schedules are created equal. In the case of the Bulldogs and the Cats, NU’s superior record in the regular season does not tell the whole story.

Although no moral victories are given in any sport, Mississippi State’s battled some of the best teams in the country during the regular season, perhaps making the Bulldogs a bit more seasoned than the Cats.

Mississippi State lost four games, the only egregious loss coming in a rivalry game against a 6-6 Mississippi team. The other three losses came against No. 7 Louisiana State, No. 1 Alabama and No. 16 Texas A&M.

LSU played in last year’s national championship, while Alabama will play in this year’s national title game for its third trip in three years. Texas A&M featured this year’s Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

Mississippi State saw arguably the best talent the country has to offer this season, while NU meandered through a down year in the Big Ten. The difference in schedules could have potentially made the Bulldogs a tougher team.

3. The Cats have yet to prove they can close

Whether you believe it’s purely a media narrative or an actual curse, NU’s bowl drought coincides with some bad mojo from the regular season.

The Cats led in the fourth quarter of every single game during the regular season, an impressive feat before you consider their three losses.

NU surrendered double-digit leads in each of their defeats, once at home and twice on the road. For all the talk about whether or not the Cats have the talent to emerge victorious in their bowl game, a mental block could be the bigger issue.

The Gator Bowl will be the Cats’ final opportunity to prove they can close a game against a truly worthy opponent on a big stage. NU has yet to show they can conquer these types of situations.

This is the sixth installment of The Daily’s Road to Jacksonville series leading up to the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. Check back Sunday when reporter John Paschall tells us why NU will win its first bowl game in more than 60 years.