PHOTO: USA Today Sports
Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-6) vs Rice Owls (10-3)
Tuesday, Dec 31st @ 4PM (ESPN)
Line: Bulldogs by 7
How Mississippi State got here: Mississippi State's season was summed up by their record against ranked opponents. They were 0-5 with losses to Oklahoma State, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama. On a positive note, they did win their last two games as they won at Arkansas (in OT) and beat in-state rival Ole Miss (in OT) in the Egg Bowl.
How Rice got here: Rice started out 1-2 with losses to Texas A&M and Houston. After that they won 9 of 10 to close the season including a 17 point win over Marshall in the Conference USA title game. Rice has won four straight coming into this one including the last two over bowl-bound teams (Tulane and Marshall). If you haven't seen their celebration video, Rice is pretty excited to be in the Liberty Bowl.
For Mississippi State to win: Mississippi State has to convert at a better rate on third down. This year they are 12th in the SEC on third down in losses, converting just 30.12%. The Bulldogs also have to get more production out of their RB corps. QB Dak Prescott has 12 rushing TDs on the year, the RBs have combined for 10. On defense, the Bulldogs have to do a better job getting after the QB. This year they finished dead last in the SEC in sacks with just 16 (Rice has given up 33 this year). Rice runs the ball a lot, so it won't be just about sacking the QB but also about forcing Taylor McHargue to make poor decisions by controlling the line of scrimmage.
For Rice to win: Rice needs to get out of the gates quickly. Mississippi State has struggled this year, at times, on offense and if Rice can get them down early, it will make them press and could cause them to make some unforced errors. On defense, Rice needs to cut down on the big plays. This season, the Owls were 11th in C-USA in giving up plays of 30 or more yards (35 of them). They need to make Mississippi State drive the entire field.
Key Player (Mississippi State): Dak Prescott, QB. With Tyler Russell out after surgery, this is now Dak's team. Prescott leads the Bulldogs in rushing this season and is more of Dan Mullen's type of QB than Tyler Russell was. Prescott has to be better throwing the ball on 3rd down (completing 52.6% of his passes) and he has to be better in the fourth quarter (completing 52.5% of his passes with 5 INT).
Key Player (Rice): Charles Ross, RB. Ross led Conference USA in ypg with 113.82 and also posted an impressive 6.23 ypc. The Bulldogs will make sure they know where Ross is on every play, the question is if they can stop him on a consistent basis.
Key Stat: Rice ran the ball 667 times this season. Only Army, Auburn and Navy have ran the ball more this season.