Coach Dan Mullen's Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 SEC) are thisleague's #5-standing team after B.C.S. bowl selections, while the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3) are the third available selection from the Big Ten after a most unusual season for that conference. Northwestern came in third in the ‘Legends' Division of the Big Ten, and benefitted more than likely any other league team beyond of course Wisconsin when the Badgers upset Nebraska for the conference title. Prevailing predictions as late as Saturday had Mississippi State taking on Wisconsin in the Gator Bowl.
Instead State gets to face an opponent which already has beaten one SEC squad. Back on September 8 in Evanston it was host Northwestern knocking off Vanderbilt 23-13. That scheduling quirk might also have played to the Bulldogs' favor as bowls rarely care to see regular-season rematches of any sort.
This way the Wildcats can make their first-ever excursion to Jacksonville for New Years Day, while Mississippi State returns to the scene of one of Mullen's most memorable victories. It was on 1-1-11 that State capped the coach's second season in Starkville with a 52-14 romp over Michigan, led by Most Valuable Player Chris Relf.
A total of 22 Dogs who played in that victory are still on State's active roster, including eight starters from that win; receivers Arceto Clark, Chris Smith, and Brandon Heavens, guard Gabe Jackson, defensive tackle Josh Boyd, and defensive backs John Banks, Corey Broomfield, and Nickoe Whitley. All these varsity Bulldogs are working for another piece of program history this year. They have matched the 1998-2000 teams by earning three consecutive post-season trips, but can surpass that by scoring a third victory too.
Last year's team defeated Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl, giving Mississippi State a five-win streak in holiday games dating back to 1999.
Aiding State's case for selection to the Gator Bowl again was the strong, make that superior showing by Bulldog fans in 2010. Not only did supporters sell out every ticket provided to MSU by the bowl, but more were purchased through other outlets. Athletic director Scott Stricklin calculated some 30,000 State fans were in the stadium to watch the whipping, out of an official crowd of 68,325. The game drew strong TV ratings as well even though matched up—just as is this year's event—with two other SEC vs. Big Ten contests in the Capitol One and Outback bowls.
In showing up so big that year, Mississippi State affirmed the Gator Bowl's new affiliation with the SEC. It was the first time since 1994 a league team had played in Jacksonville, though all-time the SEC owns a 22-14-1 record in the classic. Big Ten teams are 2-8-1 so far, including last year's loss by Ohio State to Florida.
That game had a minimum guaranteed payout of $5.45 million to divide up, as did the 2010 game for State; with the larger portion going to the Big Ten team per the contract based on that league sending a higher-finishing team. Last year Mississippi State received $3.65 million from the Music City Bowl, which gives a larger share to the SEC participant.
Mississippi State began accepting pre-orders for three possible bowl destinations last week, with the Gator included. Tickets range from $125 to $60 per the Gator Bowl site.
Bowl and school officials were being contacted for interview opportunities Sunday evening, with this story to be updated as quotes and other information becomes available.