The No. 22 Northwestern Wildcats and Mississippi State Bulldogs—two teams heading in opposite directions—will square off in this season's Gator Bowl.
After a heartbreaking overtime loss to Michigan on Nov. 10, the Wildcats bounced back nicely and reeled off two impressive victories to close out the regular season. The same cannot be said for the Bulldogs, who dropped four of their last five games as they slide into the Gator Bowl.
Despite Northwestern's recent success, it has failed to win a bowl game since winning the Rose Bowl in 1948, the lone victory in postseason play for the Wildcats. Mississippi State has performed much better, winning its last five bowl games, including three in the last six years and the Gator Bowl two years ago.
With all of this in mind, let's preview the 2012 Gator Bowl.
As mentioned on the opening slide, these are two teams on opposite ends of the spectrum, both in terms of momentum and success in bowl games.
After jumping out to a 7-0 start this season and earning the No. 11 rank, Mississippi State was manhandled by Alabama, and the Bulldogs haven't been the same since, dropping out of the Top 25 entirely.
Meanwhile, Northwestern appears to be hitting its stride at the right time, and its three losses could have easily gone either way, making the Wildcats more dangerous than they appear.
After over 60 years of futility in bowl games, Northwestern is desperate to give its football program a postseason victory, while Mississippi State is looking to avenge its poor finish and aid the SEC in its college football dominance.
The Wildcats will be lacking some depth at the linebacker position as they will be without Roderick Goodlow and Ifeadi Odenigno due to undisclosed injuries. Linebacker Collin Ellis missed the team's final game against Illinois as well, and his status is unclear moving forward.
Other players to miss Northwestern's last game were safeties Traveon Henry and Hunter Bates, but the Wildcats received some good news when quarterback Kain Colter, running back Venric Mark and defensive back Nick Vanhoose were not listed on the injury report and were on the field against Illinois.
QB—Kain Colter - Trevor Siemian
RB—Venric Mark - Mike Trumpy
WR—Rashad Lawrence - Cameron Dickerson
WR—Tony Jones - Kyle Prater
WR—Demetrius Fields - Pierre Youngblood-Ary
HB—Dan Vitale - Brian Smith
OT—Patrick Ward - Paul Jorgenson
OG—Brian Mulroe - Geoff Mogus
C—Brandon Vitabile - Hayden Baker
OG—Neal Deiters - Matt Frazier
OT—Jack Konopka - Chuck Porcelli
DE—Quentin Williams - Dean Lowry
DT—Brian Arnfelt - Chance Carter
DT—Sean McEvilly - Will Hampton
DE—Tyler Scott - Deonte Gibson
LB—Chi Chi Ariguzo - Drew Smith
LB—David Nwabuisi - Collin Ellis
LB—Damien Proby - Timmy Vernon
CB—Quinn Evans - Demetrius Dugar
CB—Daniel Jones - C.J. Bryant
S—Ibraheim Campbell - Davion Fleming
S—Jared Carpenter - Traveon Henry
KR—Venric Mark, Ibraheim Campbell
PR—Venric Mark - Ibraheim Campbell
There are no injuries to report for Mississippi State according to USA Today.
QB—Tyler Russell - Dak Prescott
RB—LaDerius Perkins - Josh Robinson
WR—Arceto Clark - Joe Morrow
WR—Chris Smith - Brandon Heavens
WR—Chad Bumphis - Jameon Lewis
TE—Marcus Green - Malcolm Johnson
OT—Blaine Clausell - Archie Muniz
OG—Gabe Jackson - Ben Beckwith
C—Dillon Day - Dylan Holley
OG—Tobias Smith - Justin Malone
OT—Charles Siddoway - Damien Robinson
DE—Kaleb Eulls - Preston Smith
DT—Josh Boyd - Devin Jones
DT—Curtis Virges - Dewayne, Cherrington
DE—Denico Autry - Shane McCardell
LB—Deontae Skinner - Chris Hughes
LB—Cameron Lawrence - Matthew Wells
LB—Benardrick McKinney - Ferlando Bohanna
CB—Johnthan Banks - Jamerson Love
CB—Darius Slay - Taveze Calhoun
S—Corey Broomfield - Jay Hughes
S—Nickoe Whitley - Dee Arrington
K—Devon Bell - Brian Egan
KR—LaDarius Perkins, Jameson Lewis
PR—Johnthan Banks - Chad Bumphis
Kain Colter is a dangerous man and one of several dual-threat quarterbacks out of the Big Ten conference.
After suffering what was called an "upper extremity" injury against Michigan on Nov. 10, Colter didn't play in the second half and also missed Northwestern's victory at Michigan State. But Colter is back and should play a pivotal roll in the Gator Bowl.
This works to Colter's advantage, who is much more dangerous with his feet. The Wildcats are a top-15 rushing team, and Colter has much to do with their success running the ball.
There's no doubt that Northwestern will attempt to take advantage of this favorable matchup and call No. 2's number early and often against the Bulldogs.
As a team, Mississippi State doesn't do anything particularly well, but it has quite a threat outside in wide receiver Chad Bumphis.
He is by far quarterback Tyler Russell's favorite target, and Bumphis has racked up 904 receiving yards, good for 43rd in the nation, to go along with his 12 touchdowns, which puts him in a tie for seventh among FBS receivers.
Bumphis isn't the tallest receiver, coming in at 5'11", but his experience as a senior and blazing speed is enough to be a thorn in the side of opposing defenses.
Northwestern makes even the worst passing games look like a well-oiled machine, ranking 102nd in pass defense. This bodes well for Bumphis and Russell, and it will be up to these two to take advantage of this favorable matchup.
Mississippi State's defense has struggled against quality competition this season, and Northwestern certainly qualifies as a quality opponent.
Against ranked opponents this season, the Bulldogs allowed at least 37 points each time, and concluded conference play by allowing 41 points to their most bitter rival, Ole Miss.
The Bulldogs' defense is entering the Gator Bowl on the lowest of notes, and things won't get any easier going up against Kain Colter. Fortunately, it has nearly a month to prepare for the dangerous dual-threat QB and the potent Northwestern offense.
It will also be interesting to see if Northwestern can use the next four weeks to help shore up its pass defense, as Mississippi State has some playmakers in the passing game, and the Wildcats struggle mightily against the pass.
Northwestern will win if it can avoid being one-dimensional on offense.
With Kain Colter and Venric Mark running the ball, the Wildcats should be able to get theirs in the run game, but if Mississippi State keys in on the run, Northwestern has to take advantage by being effective throwing the football.
Otherwise, a shutdown rushing attack could mean a stagnant Wildcat offense. Mississippi State's defense has been porous as of late, but it will find out as well as anyone what Northwestern's strength is and attempt to eliminate the threat of Colter and Mark.
To keep Mississippi State honest, the Wildcats will need to throw the ball with at least some effectiveness in order to move the football and put themselves in a position to knock off the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State will win if Tyler Russell doesn't throw an interception.
In games where the junior quarterback tosses the football to the other team, the Bulldogs are 1-4. Russell needs to take care of the football while maintaining his efficiency throughout the game.
It's already been well-documented how poorly Northwestern defends the pass, and the Wildcats only intercepted nine throws all season. For a secondary that has bee picked apart, it has also struggled to create turnovers.
Russell only threw six picks during the regular season, so as long as he continues to protect the football, the Bulldogs should be able to keep pace with Northwestern and eventually do enough to win the game.
These teams don't share many of the same traits, and that may be the perfect formula to make the Gator Bowl a game to remember.
As we tend to see year after year what happens during the regular season doesn't translate over to bowl season for multiple reasons, including the lengthy period between the two and the fact that these are kids under a lot of pressure to perform under the magnifying glass of a bowl game.
This is a Jan. 1 bowl, but these two teams are very well coached. Pat Fitzgerald and Dan Mullen will both have their teams ready to play, looking to exploit each other's weaknesses.
This sounds like a broken record, but the SEC is the best conference in the country, and the Big Ten had a down year, to say the least. As a result, we'll see Northwestern fall victim to and Mississippi State enjoy the spoils of this fact.
Get ready for a bevy of offense, a lack of defense and a wire-to-wire thriller.
Prediction: Mississippi State 38, Northwestern 31