If nothing else, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl got a matchup that few if any saw coming before the 2013 college football betting season started.
It's the fourth time Mississippi State has played in the bowl, its first appearance coming in 1963 when the game was still played in Philadelphia, and Rice's first trip to the postseason event.
ESPN has the late-afternoon New Year's Even matchup beginning at 4 PM (ET), and the Bulldogs are holding steady as 7 point favorites on SBR's live college football odds. The total started at 51.5, but has since dropped a point to 50.5 in early trading.
This marks only the second meeting between the Owls and Bulldogs, the other coming way back in 1975 when Rice traveled to Starkville for the one-off clash. Mississippi State scored a 28-14 victory that day against a typically bad Rice squad from and era when the Owls were in the midst of 28 straight seasons without a winning record.
Rice Earns 1st Conference Honors In 56 Years
That Rice is appearing in a second consecutive bowl game is news in itself; that the Owls (10-3 straight up, 8-5 against the spread) are doing so as conference champions is stop the presses headline material. Rice's 41-24 win over Marshall in the Conference USA Championship earned the Owls their first league title since winning the old Southwest Conference crown in 1957, and this is only their sixth bowl game since then.
David Bailiff, who garnered C-USA Coach of the Year honors in his seventh year at Rice, directed the Owls to their second 10-win season since his arrival before 2007. You have to go all the way back to 1949 to find Rice's only other 10-win campaign. The Owls needed a couple of overtime wins on the road to make it happen this time.
They also used a brilliant ground game and undersized, underrated defense to get the job done. Charles Ross did the bulk of the work on the ground carrying the ball 201 times for more than 1,250 yards and 14 touchdowns. The senior was a 1-man show in the 52-14 win over Louisiana Tech, scoring five times with a career-best 215 yards on the ground.
Taylor McHargue directed the offense with 2,261 yards passing and another 466 on the ground. He enters the Liberty Bowl with a string of 86 passes without an interception.
The defense ranks 24th nationally allowing 351.1 yards per game and allowed opponents to complete just 51% of their passes while picking off 14 aerials. Rice is expected to be without the versatile Darrion Pollard due to a foot injury. Pollard played cornerback, wide receiver and returned kicks for the Owls in 2013.
Bulldogs Win Final Two Games To Go Bowling
After losing a third straight game in mid-November, it didn't appear Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs would be heading to a bowl. But Mississippi State (6-6 SU, 7-5 ATS) cinched up its belt and won the final two games on the schedule, each in overtime, to eke out a 6-win campaign and tie for fifth in the SEC's West Division standings.
The Bulldogs, now in their fifth season under Mullen, came close to beating then-unranked Auburn on the road in September before the Tigers scored in the final seconds for a 24-20 triumph. Mullen's team also endured a brutal stretch on the slate in early November when the Bulldogs had to go on the road to play South Carolina and Texas A&M, then come home to face the Alabama Crimson Tide
Mississippi State has some injuries to deal with for this matchup, including quarterback Tyler Russell who is expected to miss the bowl game due to a shoulder injury. Dak Prescott, who led the Bulldogs in passing and rushing yards, will start in Russell's place. An even bigger concern is linebacker Deontae Skinner. The senior is dealing with a neck problem and not expected to suit up after finishing second on the team with 61 tackles.
One gauge we can use in this matchup is how Rice and Mississippi State performed in their road games against Texas A&M, and the stats are eerily similar. My crystal ball says that Rice can actually keep up with an SEC and hang with the Bulldogs, which is why I'm taking the points for my free college football bowl pick.
My pick: Rice +7
Reg. Season: 31-15 (+14.5)