TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Northwestern

Northwestern (9-3) aims for its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose after nine straight postseason defeats. Star running back Venric Mark and the Wildcats face a Mississippi State squad (8-4) that dropped four of its final five games. Both teams play disciplined football, ranking fifth (Mississippi State) and 10th (Northwestern) nationally in turnover margin. The game is noon on Jan. 1 in Jacksonville. It’s the second trip to the Gator Bowl in the last three years for the Bulldogs, who knocked off Michigan 52-14 in the 2011 Gator Bowl.

The Bulldogs started off the season 7-0 and rose as high as 11 in the BCS rankings. While the early part of the schedule was very favorable to Mississippi State, this team showed a ton of promise with how balanced it was on offense and how much its secondary frustrated opposing offenses. Through the first seven games of the season, the Bulldogs allowed an average of 327 yards. The 95 points allowed by their defense was the lowest total through the first seven contests for the Bulldogs since the 1999 team held opponents to 74 points.

Quarterback Tyler Russell was also one of the nation’s most efficient passers and was one of just three quarterbacks with 15-plus touchdowns and just one interception through seven games. But after being blown out by 31 against Alabama and setting foot in November, the Bulldogs fell apart. The lack of a consistent pass rush and execution issues on offense set the Bulldogs back, as they went 1-4 in their past five games and were outscored by 93 in the process. The season ended with a 41-24 loss to archrival Ole Miss in Oxford. It was the Bulldogs’ first loss to the Rebels since 2008.

Northwestern is coming off a highly successful regular season in which it recorded its highest win total since 2008, along the way becoming bowl eligible for the sixth time in Pat Fitzgerald’s seven seasons at the helm of his alma mater. The ‘Cats opened the year with five straight wins, in the process becoming the first FBS conference-affiliated team since 2006 to defeat opponents from four different BCS conferences (Big East, SEC, ACC and Big Ten) in the same regular season. NU then continued its tradition of playing well in the month of November, scoring a road win at Michigan State before dominating rival Illinois to gain momentum heading into the bowl season.

After finishing no better than 45th nationally in rushing during Fitzgerald’s first six years, the Wildcats’ ground game surged this season (14th nationally, third in the Big Ten). Junior running back Venric Mark blossomed in his first season as the starter, and, along with quarterback Kain Colter, formed one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous backfield tandems. Northwestern used both Colter and sophomore Trevor Siemian at quarterback and went from a pass-first offense to a run-driven attack, as Mark earned second-team All-Big Ten honors and finished ninth nationally in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg).

WagerWeb.com opening odds: Mississippi State -2.5 (51.5) Check our current lines

WagerWeb.com trends: Bulldogs are 2-5 ATS in their last 7 non-conference games. Bulldogs are 2-5 ATS in their last 7 games after allowing more than 200 yards rushing in their previous game. Bulldogs are 2-5 ATS in their last 7 games after accumulating less than 100 yards rushing in their previous game. Bulldogs are 1-4 ATS in their last 5 games overall. Wildcats are 5-0 ATS in their last 5 games following a ATS win. Wildcats are 4-0 ATS vs. a team with a winning record. Wildcats are 4-0 ATS in their last 4 non-conference games.

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