Miami (Ohio) aims to beat SEC team in St. Petersburg Bowl

Two teams that in October appeared to be headed for nowhere in the postseason will meet when Miami (Ohio) and Mississippi State face off in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

Kickoff will be at 11 a.m. ET on Monday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., with ESPN cameras looking on.

The Redhawks (6-6) earned their first bowl bid since 2010 by winning their last six games after losing their first six. The Bulldogs (5-7) got in by virtue of their APR (Academic Progress Rate) when not enough 6-6 teams were available to fill the 80 bowl slots.

That makes Mississippi State one of three teams (along with Hawaii and North Texas) to make it into the postseason with losing records, but the Bulldogs have the respect of Redhawks coach Chuck Martin.

"They have a lot of great players on offense and they do a lot of things that are not fun to try to defend with all their movement over there," Martin said. "And their quarterback is obviously the guy that makes it go. They score on everybody."

That quarterback is sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, who stepped in for Dak Prescott (now starting for the Dallas Cowboys as a rookie) and led the team in rushing with 1,243 yards while passing for another 2,287. He ranks 20th in the country in total offense (294.2 yards per game) and accounted for 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing).

In the season finale against Ole Miss, he rushed for 258 yards and two scores and passed for 109 and three more touchdowns to lead the 55-20 win that eventually got the Bulldogs to a bowl for a seventh consecutive season.

His favorite target is senior wide receiver Fred Ross, who had 68 receptions for 873 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Miami is playing with confidence after its midseason turnaround. Injuries that cost the Redhawks several potential starters before the season were a major factor in the stumbling start.

"It's not like they were getting crushed early in the season and then all of a sudden the light came on," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "They were battling. They had some tough losses early in the season and just kind of started making the plays and having some confidence to win the games later in the year."

The key factor in that turnaround was the emergence of sophomore quarterback Dan Ragland. Injured in the spring and unavailable at the start, Ragland took over at midseason and guided the Redhawks to six consecutive wins. All were in conference play, resulting in a 6-2 league mark that gave them a share of first place with Ohio in the East Division of the Mid-America Conference.

Martin said his Redhawks are excited to be playing a Southeastern Conference opponent, but knows they face a tough task in the program's first meeting with the Bulldogs.

"We know we have to play the best football game of our lives -- and our smartest football game of our lives -- to really give us a chance," he said.