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Dr. Saturday

Gator Bowl preview: Northwestern vs. Mississippi State

Frank Schwab
Dr. Saturday

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(USA Today Sports Images)

Gator Bowl
Northwestern (9-3) vs. Mississippi State (8-4)
Jan. 1, 12 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

About the Wildcats: This will sound strange, but the Wildcats' 9-3 record was actually a bit disappointing. That's because of what might have been. Northwestern's three losses were all blown leads. Northwestern led 28-17 going into the fourth quarter at Penn State and was outscored 22-0 in the final quarter. The Wildcats led 28-16 at home against Nebraska with less than seven minutes left, and lost. Then they gave up a 53-yard miracle pass to Michigan with just a few seconds left, allowing the Wolverines to kick a field goal to tie a game Michigan won in overtime. So while it's hard to think about Northwestern in these terms, its 9-3 campaign might be best remembered for what might have been. This team should probably have been playing in the bowl game at Pasadena a little later on New Year's Day.

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Mississippi State QB Tyler Russell (USA Today Sports Images)

About the Bulldogs: Mississippi State's season similarly can be seen as a painful disappointment rather than a celebration for a 8-4 team. Enthusiasm was high for the Bulldogs after a 7-0 start. Then came a 1-4 finish. The schedule got pretty tough during that stretch, but a 41-24 loss to Ole Miss, allowing the rival Rebels to get bowl eligible, was a bad way to end what was such a promising regular season. Also disappointing was that Mississippi State's other three losses weren't particularly competitive. All of them came by at least 20 points. What Mississippi State has going for it is success in bowl games. The Bulldogs have won five bowls in a row, which is tied for the longest active streak in the nation.

Key number: 134-158-16
Northwestern's Kain Colter is one of the nation's unique players. He had 134 passing attempts as a quarterback. But he isn't a traditional quarterback. Trevor Siemian will come in and handle quarterback duties on many plays while Colter lines up to run the ball - which he did 158 times this season - or catch a pass. Colter had 16 receptions this season. He can make plays however the Wildcats decide to use him.

The breakdown: These are two pretty good teams, though each has to be frustrated at the way its season ultimately turned out. Tyler Russell had a good season at quarterback for Mississippi State, and he'll have to shake off a rare two-interception outing in the regular-season finale (he had six interceptions all season). Northwestern is going to rely on its running game, like any respectable Big Ten team. The Wildcats rank 15th in FBS in rushing offense.

Predictions
Frank Schwab: Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 24

As mentioned above, the Wildcats could have had 10 or 11, maybe even 12 wins this season with just a little better play in the fourth quarter. This was a pretty good team that went slightly under the radar because those three heartbreaking losses came against three of the Big Ten's best teams. Mississippi State started well but faltered at the end, and doesn't come in with much momentum.

Graham Watson: Mississippi State 31, Northwestern 20
I know Mississippi State doesn't come into the game with a lot of momentum after losing four of its final five games, but this is still a talented team and the month off was a good opportunity to refocus. Northwestern played in a lot of close games this season and several of those became close because the Wildcats allowed their opponents to come back. If the Wildcats allow the Bulldogs to erase an early deficit, they probably won't escape with the win.

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