Date: Dec. 30, 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Location: Charlotte, North Carolina | Bank of America Stadium
NC State Wolfpack
Best moment: A trip to South Alabama was a bit odd to begin with, but as the culmination of an easy nonconference schedule, it figured to be the toughest opponent NC State had faced through four weeks. Instead, the Wolfpack utterly dismantled South Alabama, as Matt Dayes ran for 104 yards and three touchdowns on just eight carries and NC State cruised to a 63-13 win.
Worst moment: The 4-0 start against nonconference cupcakes offered plenty of highs, but the home fans were never more excited than when NC State appeared ready to knock off Clemson, the nation’s No. 1 team, on Halloween night. State led three different times in the first half and lined up to kick a field goal that would’ve opened up a four-point margin before the half, and the crowd was in a frenzy. But NC State missed the field goal and two plays later, Clemson was in the end zone. The Wolfpack continued to fight, but the game was never particularly close again.
Key player: Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is the engine that drives things for NC State now that its running back depth has been decimated. Brissett is a weapon as a runner and difficult to bring down, and he’s been cautious with the football all season. The problem is that he’s had virtually no weapons downfield, as evidenced by his 6.0 yards per attempt rate in ACC play.
Motivation level: High. No, NC State didn’t turn into the Cinderella team of the ACC, but last year’s bowl win over UCF helped build some buzz, and now Dave Doeren’s crew needs to do it again. NC State is just 2-21 under Doeren against teams that finished the year with a winning record, so there’s still a lot to prove.
-- David M. Hale
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Best moment: It was one of the wildest games you’ll ever see. Arkansas scored 50 points and Brandon Allen threw for seven touchdowns. But in the end, it didn’t matter. On the road, Dak Prescott reminded everyone why he was a Heisman front-runner for much of last season. Mississippi State’s senior QB kept responding every time Arkansas scored, finishing with 508 yards and five touchdowns passing and 46 yards and two touchdowns rushing. The Bulldogs won, 51-50, and cemented an eight-win season in a year when many had picked them to finish last in the SEC West.
Lowest moment: The juice wasn’t there before the game. Players simply went through the motions after a long week remembering their teammate, Keith Joseph, who had died in a car accident on Nov. 6. The fact that Mississippi State had to turn around and play No. 2-ranked Alabama was a tall task by anyone’s standards. And for the most part, the Bulldogs fought hard. But the dream of a monumental upset never came to fruition. Prescott passed for 300 yards but never found the end zone as Alabama broke through with 21 second-quarter points.
Key player: What more can you say about Prescott? He’s Mississippi State’s Tim Tebow. He’s its Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson. A decade from now, he’ll be who you think of when you reminisce about the program’s history. With his charisma and natural ability to lead -- not to mention his athleticism -- he is their best player ever, and it’s not close. It has been lost because State isn’t competing for a national title, but he’s on pace to have more passing yards, a higher completion percentage, more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than last year when he finished eighth in the Heisman race.
Motivation level: When Mississippi State plays with something to prove, it’s dangerous. It’s part of the blue-collar, chip-on-your-shoulder attitude the program has always possessed. But when that motivation is absent, it all falls apart. Just look at last year when State fell short of the playoff and laid an egg in the Orange Bowl. The Bulldogs were nothing if not flat against Georgia Tech that night. Competing in a game that’s nowhere near the level of the Orange Bowl, how will they show up this time around?
-- Alex Scarborough