2013 AutoZone Liberty Bowl Preview: Mississippi State vs. Rice

liberty bowl logoThis marks the 55th year of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and it is sure to be an exciting contest between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Rice Owls.

The Bulldogs have played in this bowl three times in the past, and have an all-time record of 2-1 at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.  The last time they were here, the Bulldogs faithful came out in full support as nearly 64,000 fans attended the game.

Rice has never played in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but they are familiar with Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.  The Owls and the University of Memphis used to be in the same conference, so Rice has made more than their fair share of trips to the Bluff City.  Their most recent trip to Memphis was last year in a game that saw Rice fall 14-10 to the hometown Tigers.

Both teams took different paths getting here with Rice winning the Conference USA Championship, and the Bulldogs needing to win their last two games of the season in overtime to become bowl eligible.

Below is a preview of the match-up between Rice and Mississippi State…

Mississippi State Bulldogs:
The college football season may not have turned out quite the way that Mississippi State fans expected, but head coach Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs are headed to a bowl for the fourth straight year.  This is the longest streak of consecutive bowl appearances in the history of the football program, and it was not easy.

Half of the Bulldogs schedule was comprised of teams that are currently ranked in the BCS Standings with three of those teams currently ranked in the top ten (Auburn, Alabama, and South Carolina).  Mississippi State lost to all of the ranked teams they faced this year, making the Bulldogs record against top 25 competition under Mullen 2-23, but they found a way to beat the teams they were supposed to and pulled off the upset against their instate rivals Ole Miss to secure a bowl bid.

Close wins over inferior teams combined with three straight losses in November against divisional opponents put their bowl hopes, and Mullen’s job, in serious jeopardy.

However, when Mississippi State needed to win out to become bowl eligible in the final two weeks of the season, coach Mullen’s Bulldogs responded with the mental fortitude necessary to hold off an Arkansas team that was hungry for their first conference win and knock off the hated Rebels.

The win over Ole Miss did more than secure a bowl berth for the Bulldogs, it bought the Golden Egg back to Starkville, and saved Mullen’s job for another season.

Players to watch:

-FUMBLE (AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning)

FUMBLE- Mississippi State defensive back Nickoe Whitley forces Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace to fumble, thus securing a Bulldogs win.  Whitley will be looking to make big plays like this in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. (Photo by AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning)

On the offensive side of the ball all eyes will be on Dak Prescott who has shown flashes of brilliance at times this season.  He leads the team in both passing and rushing and is sixth in the SEC in total offense.  Prescott is as lethal an offensive weapon as there is in college football and is able to score in every way imaginable.  He has seven passing touchdowns, 11 rushing scores, and two receptions for touchdowns too.

Defensively Nickoe Whitley is going to be a player worth watching as this will be his last collegiate game. The senior defensive back is second in the SEC with five interceptions, earned Second Team All-SEC honors this season, and do not forget it was Whitley that forced fumble to secure a Mississippi State victory over the Rebels.

(click here to see the Bo Wallace fumble and get a behind the scenes look at MemphiSport Live)

Rice Owls:

Unlike Mississippi State, the college football season turned out the way most Rice fans expected, with the Owls competing for the Conference USA crown.  However, Rice did more than simply compete, they won the C-USA Championship.  This is their first outright conference title since 1957 when they were in the Southwest Conference.

The Owls could not be stopped on the ground this season.  They are 16th nationally when it comes to rushing yards per game, averaging just over 240 total yards on the ground.

(Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle)

TOUCHDOWN- Rice feature back, Charles Ross, scores a touchdown in the Owls 52-31 loss to Texas A&M.  Ross finished the day with 19 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns.  He will have to have a similar performance if Rice is going to knock off Mississippi State (Photo by Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle)

Thanks to a dominate rushing attack, the Owls recorded their first ten win season since 1949 under renowned head coach Jess Neely.  Current head coach, David Bailiff, might not have the legendary status of Neely, but he is building a rather nice resume for himself.  This season, Bailiff was named C-USA Coach of the Year which is his second time earning the distinction in his seven year tenure at the school.

In addition to the accolades Bailiff earned this year, Rice had10 players make the All-CUSA team with five of them earning first team honors.  Rice is 15-3 in their last 18 games dating back to their 44-17 win against Southern Mississippi in 2012.

A midseason slip up against North Texas and a near loss to lowly UAB almost cost the Owls a chance to play for the conference title, but they were able to regroup and literally run over the rest of C-USA in route to their conference title.

Players to watch:
With a ground game like Rice has, it will be nearly impossible not to have your eyes glued to senior back Charles Ross.  After all, Ross has proven to be a tough back to bring down eclipsing the 100 yard mark on the ground seven times this season.  He is also 19th in the nation with 1252 total rushing yards, he averages 6.2 yards per carry, and has 14 rushing touchdowns on the year.

Senior cornerback Phillip Gaines is a player to keep your eyes on when the Owls take the field defensively.  He is a two time First Team All-CUSA selection who shuts down the opponent’s best receiver.  Opposing receivers have just 13 receptions on 40 targets against him and he leads the team with four interceptions.

The Winner:

-Who will hoist the trophy-

You can ring my bell- The winner of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl will get to hoist this unique trophy after the game.

It has been three years since the SEC last won the AutoZone Liberty Bowl thanks to losses by Georgia and Vanderbilt (the SEC did not send a team to the bowl game last year).  However, after a two year hiatus there will be a SEC vs. C-USA matchup and it does not bode well for Rice.  The SEC is 4-1 all-time against C-USA in the Liberty Bowl with the lone defeat belonging to Georgia who lost to Central Florida in 2010.

Rice will look to continue the SEC’s three year losing streak, but they will have to find some type of offensive balance if they expect to pull off the upset.

While Rice has a stellar running game, they are the 22nd worst passing team nationally.  It does not matter how good the ground game is, Rice is going to struggle because they are not good enough through the air to prevent Mississippi State from loading the box to stop the run.

Led by an All-SEC Freshman defensive end Chris Jones, the Mississippi State defensive line is more than capable of stopping the Owls run game.

This will be the seventh team the Bulldogs have faced this season who averages over 200 yards rushing per game.  Of the other six teams just two (Arkansas and LSU) ran for over 200 yards against Mississippi State.  The Bulldogs held the explosive Auburn ground game to 120 yards on the ground which was the Tigers season low and only game all season that they did not eclipse the 200 yard mark on the ground.

Prescott and the Bulldogs offense will be in for a bit of a struggle too, as the Owls are the 24th best total defense in the nation.  However, Prescott’s ability to make something happen when he gets outside of the pocket will alleviate some of the Bulldogs struggles offensively.

When it is all said and done Dan Mullen and Mississippi State will cover the spread and hand coach Bailiff his first bowl loss.

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