Welcome to the city where the heat is on, Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs are bowling in Miami this year, selected to play Georgia Tech in the Capitol One Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve. It will be State’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl since 1941, following the 1940 season.
“It’s been a few years,” MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “About 74 of them. So we’re excited to head back down to South Florida and let a new generation of Mississippi State fans experience one of the premier places in college football.”
The bowl comes following one of the best seasons in MSU history, as the Bulldogs are 10-2 and finished second in the SEC West gauntlet, checking in at No.7 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“Every team has a one year shelf life,” Dan Mullen said. “This team was born last January, and the last experience this team will have will be New Year’s Eve night.”
State will begin bowl practices on December 12th, the first five open to the public in Starkville, and will arrive in Miami on December 26th.
As for the game itself, No. 12 Georgia Tech finished the season 10-3, most recently losing to Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. Led by head coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jacket’s triple-option offense has averaged 333 rushing yards per game this season, second in the NCAA. MSU is not far behind, checking at 18th in the country with 239 rushing yards per game.
There is familiarity, of course, as Mullen and Johnson have met before on the field, most recently in Mullen’s first year in Starkville, 2009. Oddly enough, as Mullen pointed out, MSU had more rushing yards than Tech, while the Jackets out-passed the Bulldogs in that game.
He knows now what he knew then, that the triple option is hard to prepare for and defend. The most difficult thing, Mullen said, is trying to simulate the attack in practice. Luckily for MSU, freshman quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (who is redshirting this year) played in a similar style offense in high school in Georgia and will serve as the scout team quarterback during practices.
“It’s a very unique challenge,” Mullen said.
It was that same calendar year, 2009, that Mullen last had a game in the Orange Bowl, too. It was a game he called the most exhausting of his life. He’d already accepted the head coach position at MSU, but was still coaching Florida in the National Championship game.
As soon as the game ended and UF won, he recalls, he took a quick picture with his wife and the trophy, went to straight to bed, got up early in the morning for a flight to Starkville and had his first team meeting at MSU that afternoon.
“I’ve never been more exhausted in my life than being an offensive coordinator in a National Championship game and being an SEC head coach at the same time,” Mullen told reporters with an exasperated laugh.
Past exhaustion aside, Mullen is excited about the trip, saying the Orange Bowl was the game all of his players were hoping for. It had previously looked unlikely, as last week’s CFP rankings had MSU behind Michigan State. But when MSU South leapfrogged MSU North, Mullen’s team found itself as the top-ranked qualifying team to play against Georgia Tech.
While the jump surprised some around the country, Mullen said he was actually more surprised by being ranked 10th last week, rather than any surprise at moving to No. 7 this week.
Now, he’s got three weeks to get ready for the final game of a great season, with potentially MSU’s best record and highest ranking in history on the line.
“We’re gonna party like it’s 1941 down there,” Mullen said. “As Mississippi invades Miami for New Year’s, it’s gonna be pretty special for all of us.”