The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: An intriguing Gator Bowl matchup pits the Mississippi State Bulldogs of the SEC against the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference.
"This is a great reward for our players and coaches that worked so hard all year," said Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen upon learning of the invite. "We earned this trip with the way we fought throughout the season and we're grateful to the Gator Bowl Association and the City of Jacksonville for this opportunity to play in a historic New Year's Day Bowl."
The Bulldogs will be making their first appearance in a New Year's Day bowl since the 1999 Cotton Bowl. Furthermore, Mississippi State's Gator Bowl berth is the first for a Southeastern Conference member since 1994, and will mark the first time in MSU history the Bulldogs will play a Big Ten foe in a postseason game. State has only played three BigTen opponents in school history, with the last contest coming against Illinois in 1980.
Mullen's team enters this New Year's Day showdown with an 8-4 record, including a 31-23 triumph over Ole Miss in the finale that halted a two-game losing skid. The fact that the Bulldogs lost to still-undefeated Auburn by just three points suggests that MSU is capable of hanging with the elite teams in the nation when it plays up to its potential.
As for Michigan, it is set to make its 40th all-time bowl appearance, and the program hopes to even its postseason record at 20-20 with a win. This will be the third time that Michigan has played in the Gator Bowl, and the team has split its previous two Gator Bowl decisions.
Now in his third season as the head coach of the Wolverines, Rich Rodriguez has seen some major improvement in 2010. The club is 7-5 overall despite a 3-5 mark in Big Ten Conference action, and fans finally have reason to smile after Rodriguez's 2008 and 2009 squads combined to go 8-16, including 3-13 in league play.
"Mississippi State is a great team and has been consistently ranked among the top 25 this season," said coach Rodriguez. "Dan Mullen and his staff have done an outstanding job. It should be a great matchup and we look forward to playing them on New Year's Day."
This showdown marks the first-ever meeting between Mississippi State and Michigan on the gridiron.
Mississippi State is a solid offensive football team, as the club is averaging 27.1 ppg and 394.3 total ypg. The Bulldogs have scored 39 offensive touchdowns, 24 of which have been of the rushing variety, and 215.8 ypg are gained on the ground. Vick Ballard has made the most of his 166 rushing attempts, as he has gained 892 yards to go along with 16 rushing scores.
Chris Relf, MSU's quarterback, has run for 683 yards and four touchdowns. As a passer, Relf has connected on 56.3 percent of his tosses for 1,508 yards with 10 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Chad Bumphis is the top receiver on the roster, as he has 44 catches for 634 yards and five touchdowns.
With 26 takeaways and 26 sacks, Mississippi State has certainly made its fair share of big plays this season on the defensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs have been tough against the run, permitting a mere 121.7 ypg at a clip of 3.6 yards per carry. Against the pass, the Bulldogs have struggled a bit, yielding 236.4 ypg on 12.3 yards per completion.
Opposing quarterbacks have tossed 17 touchdowns against MSU, so expect Michigan to put the ball in the air early and often. Chris White is the top defensive performer for the Bulldogs, as he has posted 105 tackles, 15.5 of which have resulted in lost yardage.
White and company will certainly have their hands full with Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, the 2010 Big Ten Conference Offensive Player of the Year. A true dual threat, Robinson has rushed for 1,643 yards and 14 touchdowns at 6.7 yards per carry, and he has thrown for 2,316 yards and 16 scores. In large part because of their versatile signal-caller, the Wolverines are racking up 34.3 ppg and 500.9 total ypg.
Robinson's top target is Roy Roundtree, who has posted 882 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 63 receptions. As for the ground attack, Robinson does get some help from the likes of Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw. Smith has run for 588 yards and five touchdowns, while Shaw has nine rushing scores to his credit on only 71 totes.
Opponents are notching 33.8 ppg against Michigan, which is yielding 447.9 total ypg. Fans of the team consider this Wolverines' defensive unit one of the worst in recent memory, and it is hard to argue that claim given the numbers. There have been 48 touchdowns surrendered to opposing offenses through 12 games, and 30 of those scores have been of the rushing variety. Michigan is permitting 4.7 yards per rushing attempt to go along with 12.9 yards per pass completion.
With just 17 sacks and 18 takeaways, Michigan hasn't made nearly enough impact plays. Jordan Kovacs leads the Wolverines with 112 total tackles, including 8.5 TFLs, and Jonas Mouton also has 8.5 TFLs while registering one fewer total tackle than Kovacs to date. James Rogers paces the squad with three interceptions.
Robinson is one of the most exciting players in college football and will play well against the Bulldogs. Still, the edge goes to Mississippi State, which is clearly a better defensive football team than Michigan.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Mississippi State 27, Michigan 24