First-time opponents are set for a New Year's Day showdown at EverBank Field in Jacksonville when the Mississippi State Bulldogs take on the Northwestern Wildcats in the Gator Bowl.
Mississippi State's season got off to a flying start, winning each of its first seven games to rise all the way to No. 13 in the polls, but as its schedule got more difficult, its luck began to run out. The Bulldogs lost four of their last five games, including to nationally-ranked opponents Alabama (38-7), Texas A&M (38-13), and LSU (37-17) to finish 8-4. Still, their campaign was good enough to qualify for a bowl for the third straight season.
"This is a reward for our players after all their hard work this season and I know our coaches, players and fans will again have a great time in Jacksonville," Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said.
The start of Northwestern's season could not have been any better, as it won each of its five September games, but a fantastic year could have been even stronger had things gone differently in Big Ten losses at Penn State (39-28) and Michigan (38-31 in OT) as well as at home against Nebraska (29-28). Despite the heartbreaking defeats, the Wildcats finished with back-to-back wins over Michigan State (23-20) and Illinois (50-14) to end the regular season 9-3.
"To have our seniors go out by playing in five straight bowl games and cap their careers by playing on Jan. 1 is just a great opportunity," NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Despite playing in the brutally tough SEC, Mississippi State has put together a very impressive year offensively (30.2 ppg, 389.4 ypg) thanks in large part to its record-setting quarterback.
Tyler Russell has had the most decorated season in Bulldogs' history under center, setting school records for yards (2,985), completion percentage (.600), and touchdowns (26), and with just six interceptions, he boasts one of the best touchdown-to-interception ratios in the nation.
Russell knows he will have his hands full with the stout Northwestern defense.
"They don't mess up a whole lot," Russell said. "They're really smart. You're not going to catch them out of coverage, they aren't going to make mistakes like that. We just have to go out there and execute and do the things that we do."
Helping Russell along the way is All-SEC receiver Chad Bumphis, who has piled up 904 yards on 55 receptions, hauling in 12 touchdowns in the process. The senior is now the program's all-time leader in receiving yards (2,252) and touchdowns (24).
LaDarius Perkins (940 rushing yards, 160 receiving yards, 10 total TDs) serves as the every-down back for the Bulldogs, and he's racked up 100 or more total yards in six of the 11 games he's played in.
Although the Bulldogs' defense has proven to be vulnerable at times (389.9 ypg), it has still been strong on the scoreboard, allowing 22.4 ppg, due to an outstanding 30 takeaways.
Leading the defense is All-America defensive back Johnthan Banks, who has recorded four interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery while leading the team with 11 passes defended. Darius Slay (five INTs) has surely benefited from Banks' presence, and Cameron Lawrence is one of the best all- around linebackers in the country with 111 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
The offensive attack for Northwestern is very similar to MSU's, as it scores 31.5 ppg on nearly 400 ypc. However, the Wildcats rely much more heavily on the running game, as they net more than 230 rushing yards per contest.
Leading the way in the rushing attack is one of the most explosive running backs in the country in Venric Mark, who's gained 1,310 yards on 6.2 ypc, while scoring 11 touchdowns. He's been especially hot lately, rushing for 100 yards or more in five of the last six games, including a career-day at Minnesota on Oct. 13 (20 carries, 182 yards, two TDs).
Quarterback Kain Colter is also a crucial part of the ground game, amassing 820 rushing yards and a team-best 12 scores, while his passing numbers (.687 completion percentage, 796 yards, eight TDs, two INTs) have also been impressive. Splitting snaps under center with Colter is Trevor Siemian (1,192 yards), who despite having 63 more attempts than Colter, doesn't have as strong of numbers (.589 completion percentage, six TDs, two INTs).
The Wildcats spread the wealth in the receiving game, as seven players have more than 100 yards receiving but no one has more than 373 yards. Rashad Lawrence (303 yards) has a team-high 32 receptions, Tony Jones (335 yards) has four touchdowns, and Colter has even been utilized in the pass game with 16 receptions.
Northwestern's defense (22.8 ppg, 385.3 ypg) may not be as active in the turnover game as MSU, but with nine interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries, it is more than capable of coming up with big plays when needed.
Damien Proby is one of the Big Ten's top tacklers with 108 stops, and Chi Chi Ariguzo (86 tackles) has made plenty of plays behind the line of scrimmage with 10.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and four fumble recoveries. David Nwabuisi (91 tackles, three INTs)) and Tyler Scott (seven sacks) have also had big seasons.