For the second time in three years, Mississippi State will be headed to the Sunshine State for a New Year’s Day bowl game.
This time, Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs will play the Northwestern Wildcats in the Gator Bowl on ESPN2 at 11 a.m. central on January 1. You can find the full story here on HailState.com
NU finished its season with a 9-3 record, including a 5-3 record in the Big Ten. Its three losses came against conference foes Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan, while it claims wins over Michigan State and Syracuse, as well as a 23-13 victory over SEC squad Vanderbilt in the second week of the season.
The surprise storyline of the matchup isn’t MSU’s return to Jacksonville, but the close bond of Mullen and Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The two met and became friends when recruiting the Houston area back when Mullen was at Utah as an assistant and they have remained close ever since, using each other as a sounding board throughout their careers.
“We bounce a lot of things off of each other,” Fitzgerald said. “When I’m thinking about making tweaks or decisions, he’s one of those guys I reach out to.”
The pair actually exchanged game tape with each other over the last few weeks, though Mullen said he hasn’t yet started studying the film.
They have studied each other extensively, however, and it’s something Mullen does with regularity.
“They’re an offense that I study and we study as a staff every offseason to see what innovative things they’re doing,” Mullen said.
So, just as Fitzgerald has looked to Mullen for help, MSU’s head coach has sought council from his friend to the north.
“I know he’s helped me in my young career as a head coach,” Mullen said. “I’ve been able to bounce ideas off him.”
After years of studying each other and promoting the other’s success, now they are turned against each other. Of course, it won’t be particularly heated. Not between the coaches, anyway.
“You always love to compete,” Fitzgerald said, “and when you get to compete against a friend, it makes it that much more special.”
Both Fitzgerald and Mullen expressed the importance of having bowl practices as a means to continually improve their teams and have more teaching moments.
“We’re gonna spend the next couple weeks getting a lot of young players reps,” Mullen said. “Then we’ll hone in on game-planning as we get later.”
And, while MSU was in Jacksonville just two years ago, many of those young players, as Mullen pointed out, weren’t able to play. On a team heavy with freshmen and sophomores – both of the true and redshirt variety – there are plenty who will be playing in Florida for the first time.
Even Chad Bumphis, a senior putting a cap on his record-breaking career at MSU, didn’t get to play in the last Gator Bowl because of an injury sustained against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. As you’d imagine, he’s excited to play this time.
“Our team couldn’t be more excited to come back,” Mullen said.
Tickets are available at HailState.com and Gator Bowl President Rick Catlett said the best option for good seats is going through the institutions. MSU’s previous appearance in the Gator Bowl set the record for attendance in the bowl’s history and those in Jacksonville are hoping for more of the same.
The matchup will also be the first between the SEC and Big Ten schools.
“That lack of familiarity with the two teams makes it pretty special,” Mullen said.
MSU finished the season on a down note, dropping the Egg Bowl and four of its final five games, but finishing 8-4 and earning an appearance in the Gator Bowl is one of the best seasons in the program’s history.
“In college football, the opportunity to spend New Year’s Day in Florida against a Big Ten foe like Northwestern is a great opportunity,” MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin said.