The two improbable teams that were counted out midway through the regular season will clash in this year's AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Mississippi State and Rice weren't expected to do much this year, but they ended the regular season on fire to qualify for a bowl appearance. The Owls even shocked their way to a C-USA title.
Rice won its first conference title since 1957 and qualified for its second straight bowl appearance. It's the first time the Owls are going bowling in back-to-back seasons since 1960-61. The program has won 10 games for the second time since 2008 and ended the season on a four-game winning streak.
Mississippi State won its last two games of the regular season to become bowl eligible for the fourth straight season. Good news for the Bulldogs is that head coach Dan Mullen is 2-1 in bowl games. Mississippi State also played in the Liberty Bowl in 2007 and won 10-3 over UCF.
The Bulldogs have won the only previous meeting against Rice back in 1975.
Time: Dec. 31. @ 4:00 p.m. ET
Place: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium (Memphis, Tenn.)
Protect the Quarterback
Rice has allowed 33 sacks in 12 games, which is almost three sacks per contest. There aren't many teams allowing their quarterback to be hit more than Rice. And what makes matters worse is that the Owls are mainly a running offense, which means making up those lost yards can be extremely difficult. Rice needs to stay out of 3rd-and-long situations as much as possible. That means that the offensive line needs to do a better job of blocking and protecting the quarterback. Mississippi State does have a physical defense and will test this unit all afternoon. It's time for the big uglies to step up.
Score When Given the Opportunity
The Owls may have a one-dimensional offense, but they're able to win so many games because they score most of the time in the red zone. Rice scored on 42 of 47 red-zone trips in the regular season, which was good for second in the C-USA. An incredible 35 of those 42 scores resulted in touchdowns. The offense may not be fun to watch, but it is efficient. Against a feisty defense, Rice must continue to take advantage of every opportunity to put points on the board.
It's become the staple of Mississippi State's defense. Although it may not be flashy and doesn't feature many household names, this unit has a knack of creating turnovers and giving the ball back to the offense. The Bulldogs forced 24 turnovers in 12 games, and a lot of them came in bunches. In the last four games, Mississippi State created an impressive 14 turnovers. It's no wonder this program was able to win the final two games to qualify for a bowl game. Keep it up, defense.
Roll with Dak Prescott at QB
The Bulldogs have rotated quarterbacks throughout the season. Sometimes you'd see Prescott; sometimes it'd be Tyler Russell. When it wasn't a combination of both, it was freshman Damian Williams. Stop it! Prescott is your guy. The sophomore dual-threat quarterback is capable of making all of the plays either with his legs or with his arm. He's an explosive athlete and is actually the reason the Bulldogs are even in a bowl game, as he led them back in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss. A two-quarterback system can work at times, but there's no point when Prescott has already proven he's the better option.
Charles Ross, Running Back
Ross is the workhorse for Rice's offense, as he carried the ball 201 times for more than 1,000 yards and 15 total touchdowns this season. He's a big back at 6'1", 235 pounds and runs exactly how you would imagine. He's a one-way runner who constantly runs downhill, keeps his legs churning and always falls forward for extra yardage. Ross is also capable of making plays in the passing game, as he has 35 receptions in five seasons. This offense usually goes as far as Ross carries it.
Taylor McHargue, Quarterback
McHargue doesn't complete a high percentage of his throws, but he has shown the ability to take advantage of one-on-one coverage and burn defenses deep. In fact, he had 19 passing plays of 25 or more yards during the regular season. Most of those plays came off of play-action when defenses were loading the box in hopes of slowing Ross down. But McHargue is also capable of making plays with his legs, as he has 17 career rushing touchdowns. His big frame at 6'3", 220 pounds is tough to bring down once he gets rolling. He isn't flashy, but he gets the job done.
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
I'm a huge fan of Prescott. He has the ability to become the next great dual-threat quarterback in college football. From his size at 6'2", 230 pounds to his strong arm and improving accuracy, the sophomore looks the part and is slowly gaining confidence. Despite seeing playing time off and on throughout the season, he ran for 751 yards and 11 touchdowns while throwing for 1,657 yards and seven touchdowns. He's tough to tackle in the open field and just has a knack for getting the job done. Prescott can be a game-changer.
LaDarius Perkins, Running Back
It's tough to try and figure out exactly what happened to Perkins. Last year, he established himself as a quality running back who ran for more than 1,000 yards. This year, he ran for only 495 yards and two touchdowns and didn't have a single 100-yard performance. However, while the numbers aren't there, Perkins is still a big play waiting to happen. He's shifty in the open field and can take any given carry 20-plus yards. Making sure Perkins is effective will be key for the Bulldogs offense.
Gabe Jackson, offensive lineman: He's a massive lineman at 6'3", 340 pounds and is extremely powerful. He has solid lateral agility and is surprisingly quick for such a big guy.
Nickoe Whitley, defensive back: Whitley was the ball hawk for Mississippi State, but he won't participate in this game due to an ACL surgery.
Rice went from being the program that nobody mentioned to qualifying for two straight bowl appearances and winning a conference title for the first time since 1957. After the upset win over Marshall for the C-USA title, defensive end Cody Bauer let the world know that Rice had finally arrived, per Joseph Duarte of Chron.com.
"We've been through tough times," Bauer said. "We're finally here.
"We changed the program."
Indeed. It's safe to say the Owls are quietly on the rise.
As for Mississippi State, head coach Dan Mullen just wanted to make sure his program received a more prestigious bowl game than rival Ole Miss, according to Edward Aschoff of ESPN.
“We finished ahead of the school up north," Mullen said. "Not overall but conference record (we were) both 3-5 and we won the head-to-head so I hope the league looks at that.
“Hopefully the league gives us the nod, and we get the higher bowl game.”
A trip to Memphis isn't too bad, right?
This should end up being one of the better bowl games of this season. You have two teams that butter their bread on the defensive side of the ball. Regardless of who wins, you can expect a low-scoring game and a lot of hard hits.
But for the sake of a prediction, you have to go with Mississippi State. It's the team that's a lot more balanced offensively and has seemed to have found a rhythm over the last month or so. Although the Bulldogs have lost three of their last five games, they did play Texas A&M and Alabama a lot closer than expected.
Rice has been on fire, winning nine of its last 10, but the lack of competition is a concern. The Owls are in for their toughest battle yet and may not have enough athletes to compete with a team from the SEC. Mississippi State is too big, too strong and too fast.
The Owls will put up a strong fight defensively, but it won't be enough in the end.
Mississippi State wins, 21-10.