Rice (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (6-6) Dec. 31, ESPN
Here's The Deal … The measuring stick part of the season is coming full circle for a Rice team that turned into a shocking Conference USA champion. Can the best team in one league get by the worst of the bowl teams in the biggest of conferences?
The Owls started out the season as a footnote to the debut of Johnny Manziel, after sitting for a half as his punishment for signing his name, and the 2012 Heisman winner didn't disappoint in a 52-31 win. However, part of the story was a game Rice team that made it an interesting fight in the first half. At the time, though, the narrative was about Texas A&M's bad performance and not a great offensive day from Rice.
It took several tight wins – with five victories by six points or fewer – just to get to the Conference USA champion, and then a combination of a flat Marshall and a strong offensive performance from the Owls means a 41-24 win and a trip to Memphis, but after starting out with an SEC loss, can they close out the year with a win over an SEC team?
Mississippi State already had its big moment with an Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss just to get bowl eligible, but this really is a reward for a program and a coaching staff trying to fight the uphill battle in the SEC West. It's a rough go for Dan Mullen with Alabama and LSU two of the games superpowers, Texas A&M devastating offensively, Ole Miss rising up under Hugh Freeze, and Auburn making everyone's life that much harder by showing that it really is possible to come from out of nowhere to do something special. But for a team that has struggled so much against the better teams, but doesn't falter against the mediocre, it's truly a schedule problem. Would MSU be a nine-win team in the Big Ten or ACC? It's possible, but it can't lose to a Conference USA team, even its champion.
Both teams are relatively even offensively, both teams have some pop and explosion at times, and both teams have major flaws – Mississippi State is miserable on punt returns and Rice can't really throw – but these are interesting teams that are going to try. Being here is a big deal for both programs, and they should play like it.
The Bulldogs suffered the indignity of being the team that Northwestern snapped it's long bowl losing streak against in last year's 34-20 Gator Bowl, but before that they had won five straight bowl games going back to 1999. Rice destroyed Air Force in last year's Armed Forces and ripped up Western Michigan in the 2008 Texas, but before that the program had lost four straight bowl games. However, three of those were a long, long time ago – this is just the team's fourth bowl appearance since the 1961 Bluebonnet.
A stunningly good bowl game over the last few seasons, the Liberty was on a run of eight straight terrific games decided by a touchdown or less before Tulsa beat Iowa State 31-17 last season.
Players to Watch: Tyler Russell was supposed to be the star under center for Mississippi State, but sophomore Dak Prescott has emerged as the dangerous all-around playmaker who gives the offense another dimension. Despite getting banged up late in the season, he's the team's leading rusher with 751 yards and 11 scores with 154 yards against Texas A&M and 133 against Auburn. He can also throw a little bit, hitting 58% of his throws for 1,657 yards and seven scores, but he threw seven picks. Rice also has to watch out for him in funky formations, catching two passes for 53 yards and two scores. With Russell undergoing shoulder surgery, it's Prescott's offense to run.
It's the final game for Taylor McHargue, the leader and playmaker who threw for a solid 2,2261 yards and 17 touchdowns with eight picks, and ran for 466 yards and five scores. A facilitator, he's good on the move and can take off when needed but he's not necessarily a dangerous runner and he's not the most accurate passer, hitting 52% of his throws. However, he doesn't make big mistakes – with just three picks in the final 11 games and with two of those coming against North Texas – and he's a good decision maker who keeps the offense moving.
McHargue might be the leader, but it's 6-1, 235-pound senior Charles Ross who carries the attack. Everything works around his pounding style, and while he hits well, he can move a little bit in the open field too. The First Team All-Conference USA performer ran for 1,252 yards and 14 scores despite missing two games hurt, running for 215 yards and five touchdowns against Louisiana Tech and rumbling for 109 yards and two scores in the title game win over Marshall. Rice is 5-2 this year when he runs for 100 yards or more, only losing to Texas A&M and North Texas.
MSU is without injured star safety Nickoe Whitley, but Rice doesn't throw too much to test the secondary. Whitley's loss will be a big deal against the run, finishing with 55 tackles on the season. The linebacking tandem of Benardrick McKinney and Deontae Skinner will have to keep the Owl running game under wraps. McKinney a sophomore, is built like a tweener defensive end/linebacker, but the former dual threat quarterback can do a little of everything making a team-leading 69 tackles with 2.5 sacks an six tackles for loss. Skinner is a big, tough defender who's tough against the run. He doesn't get into the backfield on a regular basis, but he doesn't miss a stop.
Mississippi State will win if … the defensive front controls the game from the start. Rice doesn't have a passing game and it doesn't strike down the field. It works with its version of the spread attack and gets its runners in position to make plays in space. McKinney and Skinner have to be patient and they have to be disciplined in their assignments – don't let McHargue get the ball to the backs on the move. One of the big keys, though, is turnover margin. Rice can't make mistakes and win, and it showed this year being on the negative side five times with three of those losses coming in those games. The other two times were close calls against UAB and Tulane. Rice is 8-0 this year when it doesn't lose the turnover battle.
Rice will win if … it gets Mississippi State into third-and-long situations. This isn't a Bulldog team built to come up with big pass plays, and it struggled all year to keep the chains moving and having problems on third downs. Part of the Rice formula was getting off the field – it led Conference USA in third down conversion defense, allowing teams to convert just 33% of the time. MSU doesn't do anything on punt returns and it needs decent position, so the more Rice can keep the field tilted to the other side, the better – this isn't an offense that can strike quickly from anywhere, and the Owls don't give up big plays.
What Will Happen: Don't just assume the Conference USA team will curl up and die against an SEC team. The Bulldogs will be more physical and won't make the big mistakes Rice will need to capitalize on. Rice lives off of time of possession, leading C-USA and ranking seventh in the nation holding the ball for 33:34 per game – but MSU is just as good keeping it just over 33 minutes per outing. As long as the Bulldogs don't start turning the ball over they'll be fine.
Prediction: Mississippi State 27 … Rice 17
Line: Mississippi State -7… o/u: 50.5
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