Jan. 1, 1:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Mississippi State take by SEC blogger Chris Low: There was a little drama at the end about where, but Mississippi State is going back to a bowl game for the first time since the 2007 season. At one point, it looked like the Bulldogs (8-4) might fall to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, but the Gator Bowl scooped the Bulldogs up to face Michigan in what will be their first Jan. 1 bowl appearance since the 1999 Cotton Bowl.
Dan Mullen, in his second season at Mississippi State, has rejuvenated the program. The Bulldogs won six straight games during the middle portion of their schedule before losing back-to-back games to Alabama and Arkansas following the death of defensive end Nick Bell, who died of cancer.
Mississippi State recovered to beat Ole Miss for a second straight season, really endearing Mullen to the Bulldogs’ fans. Perhaps the best news for Mississippi State entering this game is Mullen said Sunday night he’s staying put. School officials are working on a new deal to keep him in Starkville amid reports that he was one of the top targets at Miami.
The Bulldogs have leaned on their running game all season. They're ranked 16th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 215.8 yards per game.
Michigan take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Michigan is bowl bound for the first time in three seasons, and once again the spotlight will be on the Wolverines head coach.
The Wolverines sent Lloyd Carr out as a winner by knocking off defending national champion Florida in the 2008 Capital One Bowl. They’ll try to deliver a similar performance Jan. 1 against Mississippi State for embattled coach Rich Rodriguez, who still doesn’t know whether he’ll return for a fourth season.
The Gator Bowl features two spread offense teams and two of the system’s proven practitioners in Rodriguez and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Michigan has had the more dynamic offense this season, ranking sixth nationally in yards per game (500.9) and 11th in rushing (251.1 ypg). The Wolverines also boast the most dynamic player on the field in quarterback Denard Robinson, who ranks fourth nationally in rushing average (136.9 ypg).
Mississippi State, however, looks like the better team. The Bulldogs don’t have an obvious flaw like Michigan (defense, special teams), and all four of their losses came against top 20 opponents (Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama). Michigan’s defense will have its hands full with Bulldogs dual-threat quarterback Chris Relf.
Perhaps the best news for Michigan is that Mississippi State doesn’t play in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are 8-0 in nonconference games the last two seasons but just 6-18 in the Big Ten under Rodriguez.