Louisville (8-4) vs. No. 23 Mississippi State (8-4)
Dec. 30, 12 p.m. ET, Jacksonville (ESPN)
Louisville -6.5, O/U: 63
HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE
Louisville: Louisville struggled on defense for most of the year, but having Lamar Jackson at quarterback means you’re capable of winning some shootouts. And that’s what the Cardinals did. But they lost some, too. Louisville started the year 4-1 but dropped three of its four games in October, giving up 39, 45, and 42 points in those losses (to NC State, Boston College and Wake Forest). November was a different story. The Cardinals rounded out the season with three straight wins, allowing an average of 16 points per game in the process.
Mississippi State: MSU had the looks of an SEC West contender following a Week 3 blowout win over LSU, but the Bulldogs did not fare as well in their next two challenges. MSU was beaten handily on the road by Georgia, 31-3, and Auburn, 49-10, in back-to-back weeks. From there, MSU reeled off four straight and was 7-2 with No. 2 Alabama coming into Starkville. The Bulldogs played Bama tough and led for much of the second half, but the Tide eked out a 31-24 win with a touchdown in the final minute. A win over Arkansas followed but the season ended on a negative note with a 31-28 loss to rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Starting QB Nick Fitzgerald suffered a gruesome ankle injury in the loss. And to make matters worse, coach Dan Mullen left for the Florida job shortly after. Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is MSU’s new head coach, but assistant Greg Knox will serve as the interim coach for the bowl.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, may have been even better this year. He enters the bowl game with 3,489 passing yards, 1,443 rushing yards with 42 total touchdowns (25 passing, 17 rushing). Against the Bulldogs, he has a very good chance to both of his yardage totals from his Heisman-winning season. Jackson’s numbers look like this: 241/399 (60.4), 3,489 yards, 25 TDs and 6 INTs passing with 1,443 yards (6.9 avg) and 17 TDs rushing. Jackson won the award with these numbers: 230/409 (56.2 percent), 3,543 yards, 30 TDs and 9 INTs passing with 1,571 yards (6.0 avg.) and 21 TDs rushing.
Montez Sweat, DL, Mississippi State: Sweat made an immediate impact for the Bulldogs after transferring from the junior college level. The first-team All-SEC selection led the conference with 9.5 sacks and was tops on the Bulldogs with 12.5 tackles for loss — fourth-most in the SEC. He also had 44 total tackles. Sweat, alongside fellow first-team All-SEC pick Jeffery Simmons (57 tackles, 11 TFL, 4 sacks), helped MSU have one of the top defensive lines in the country.
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This could be the last time you see Lamar Jackson in a college uniform. He has avoided any talk about his NFL future but it would be a surprise if he decided to return for his senior year. With 8,872 passing yards, 3,974 rushing yards and 116 total touchdowns, what else does he have to prove? Beyond Jackson’s potential finale, there’s another intriguing dynamic at play here. These teams essentially swapped defensive coordinators after the 2016 season with Todd Grantham moving from Louisville to MSU and Peter Sirmon going from MSU to Louisville. There will be familiarity with the opponent’s personnel for sure.
WHAT’S ON THE LINE: Both teams have the chance to reach nine wins for the third time in four years with a win. Mississippi State can extend its bowl winning streak to three after winning the St. Petersburg Bowl in 2016 and the Belk Bowl in 2015. Louisville lost in the Citrus Bowl last year but can reach the .500 mark in bowl games under Bobby Petrino with a win. Petrino is currently 3-4 in bowls over his two stints at UL.
Nick: Louisville 38, Mississippi State 24
Sam: Louisville 30, Mississippi State 23
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