Mississippi State went 6-6 during the regular season under third-year head coach Dan Mullen. Overall, this will be the program's 16th bowl appearance and second straight. The Bulldogs had a disappointing year in SEC play, finishing 2-6 in the conference's West Division, which features the likes of LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Still, win/loss records often go out the window when it comes to postseason play.
"A second straight postseason bowl berth is a credit to the hard work of coach Mullen, his staff and our football student-athletes," Mississippi State Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin said. "We are proud of their accomplishments and look forward to joining the thousands of other Bulldogs in Nashville for a great bowl experience."
Wake Forest also finished the regular season with a 6-6 mark and earned its bowl eligibility with a 31-10 win over Maryland on Nov. 19. The Demon Deacons are making their 10th all-time bowl appearance but their first since the 2008 season. This is the team's fifth bowl appearance under head coach Jim Grobe, who has coached in more bowl games than any other coach in school history. The Demon Deacons are 6-3 all-time in the postseason and have won four of their last six bowl games, including a 29-19 victory over Navy in 2008.
"We couldn't be more excited to be playing in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl," said Grobe. "Our players, coaches and fans are looking forward to this wonderful opportunity in Nashville. Traveling to Nashville during the Christmas holiday will be a great experience for our families and the players."
This marks the first meeting between these two schools on the gridiron. The Music City Bowl is an annual matchup pitting an Atlantic Coast Conference team against a school from the Southeastern Conference. Last year's Music City Bowl produced an exciting 30-27 double-overtime victory for North Carolina over Tennessee. Coach Mullen said his coaches and players are all geared up to make this year's installment another memorable battle.
"This is a great accomplishment for our players and coaches who worked hard all season long," Mullen said. "We're excited to make the trip to Nashville and play in a great bowl game. This game is a reward for our players and fans and - as we've said all season - the practices and preparation will be important for the development of the future of our program."
Mullen and the Bulldogs will head into the matchup with an offense that ranked fourth in the SEC in red-zone efficiency, as they scored on 32-of-36 trips inside the 20 (89 percent). However, the team heads into this game a bit thin at quarterback after sophomore signal-caller Tyler Russell, a four-game starter, tweaked his knee in practice on Dec. 13 and had to be helped off the field. While Russell is considered probable for the bowl game, third-stringer Dylan Favre left the team during the break with the intent to transfer.
If Russell is unable to play through the pain, the job will fall to senior Chris Relf, who led MSU to a win over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Relf threw for 1,083 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions on the year. Although Relf is capable of guiding the offense, the Bulldogs will likely lean on senior running back Vick Ballard, who finished the regular season ranked fourth in the SEC with 1,009 rushing yards to go along with eight scores. A second-team All-SEC pick, Ballard started all 12 games and eclipsed the 100- yard mark five times. He'll work behind an offensive line anchored by standout guards Gabe Jackson and Quentin Saulsberry.
On the other side of the ball, MSU finished the year ranked 19th nationally in scoring defense by allowing 19.9 points per game. The Bulldogs were third in the SEC in red-zone defense and fourth in turnover margin. Junior linebacker Cameron Lawrence led the way with 114 tackles on the year, which ranked third in the conference.
Lawrence is free to roam and make plays thanks to the efforts of first-team All-SEC defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who is a beast in the trenches. Cox was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week four times during the regular season, as his 12.5 tackles for loss were the most by any defensive tackle in the league. He also ranked second among SEC interior linemen with four sacks.
Junior Johnthan Banks headlines the secondary with 64 tackles (7.5 TFL), three sacks and three forced fumbles. Banks, who tied for ninth in the nation with five interceptions and led the SEC with 14 passes defended, was one of just two players in the nation this year to return a punt and an interception for touchdowns.
Wake Forest tied for second place in the ACC Atlantic Division with a 5-3 conference record. The team lost a heartbreaker at division champion Clemson courtesy of a last-second field goal on Nov. 12. But along the way, the Demon Deacons also knocked off a 22nd-ranked Florida State squad and posted ACC road wins at Boston College and Duke.
Highlighting the offense is star wideout Chris Givens, who led the ACC in receiving yards per game (106.3) and set the school record for receiving yards in a season with 1,276. Givens has 74 receptions on the year and nine touchdown catches. He topped 100 receiving yards seven times, including a season-high 191 yards receiving against Maryland.
Slinging him the ball is Tanner Price, who has completed 60.9 percent of his passes on the year for 2,803 yards, an average of 233.6 yards per game. Price has 20 touchdown passes with only six interceptions. The Demon Deacons have a two-pronged attack in the backfield with Brandon Pendergrass (62.5 ypg) and Josh Harris (54.0 ypg).
Defensively, Wake Forest's strength is in the defensive backfield, which features a couple of big-time playmakers in senior safety Josh Bush and redshirt freshman cornerback Merrill Noel. Bush, a first-team All-ACC selection, earned All-American honors after finishing second in the ACC and sixth in the nation with six interceptions this season. He had two picks against Notre Dame and finished the regular season with 56 tackles. Bush is the first Demon Deacon chosen to the All-American team since 2008 when Alphonso Smith was a first-team selection and Aaron Curry was named to the second team.
Noel garnered first-team Freshman All-American honors and finished the regular season tied for the national lead in passes defended with 20, which is the highest by an FBS freshman in the nine seasons since the NCAA began tracking the statistic on a weekly basis. He also had an interception and a school- record 19 pass breakups to go along with 59 tackles, including 48 solo stops. Noel was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The play of Noel and Bush is a key reason Wake Forest was able to improve three wins from the previous season's win total. The Demon Deacons ranked 98th nationally in pass efficiency defense a year ago, but are 45th in 2011.