WHO: 6-6 Mississippi State (SEC) vs. 10-3 Rice (Conference USA)
WHAT: AutoZone Liberty Bowl (55th year)
WHERE: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee
WHEN: Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET
WHY: Mississippi State will be appearing in a bowl game for the fourth straight year, the first time in the program’s 112-year history that’s happened. Rice, on the other hand, has earned a postseason berth in back-to-back seasons for just the second time, with the first coming in 1961-62.
If the way the regular season holds to form, the effectiveness of both running games — or the opposing run defenses — will play a significant role in the the outcome.
The Conference USA champion Owls, who bring a four-game winning streak into the bowl game, are far and away the more reliant of the two on the ground game, averaging a robust 240.2 yards per game that’s good for 15th in the country. The key to Rice’s running game is senior tailback Charles Ross, who leads the team with 1,252 yards and has accounted for 14 of the Owls’ 30 rushing touchdowns. The Bulldogs are 45th in rushing with 185.8 yards per game and are led by starting quarterback Dak Prescott‘s 751 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Both of the run defenses are middle-of-the-pack nationally, with the 48th (151.1 ypg) and the Owls 54th (155.4 ypg).
To say that the two teams struggle in the passing game would be an understatement. The Owls are 92nd in passing yards per game (185.5) while the Bulldogs are 65th (240.3). Prescott, who replaced the injured Tyler Russell, is a dual-threat quarterback who relies heavily on the run portion of the threat as he’s prone to interceptions — he matched his seven touchdown passes with the same number of picks in 239 attempts. Rice’s starter, Taylor McHargue (no relation), has thrown eight picks in 309 attempts, although he has also thrown 17 touchdown passes in an offense that would much prefer to make its hay on the ground.
MSU’s average passing attack could be further exposed by a Rice defense that’s 13th in the country after allowing 195.7 yards per game through the air.
The two programs from distinctly different conferences do have one common opponent: Texas A&M. The Owls also to the Aggies 52-31 in the season opener, while the Bulldogs fell to A&M 51-41 Nov. 9. Both of those games were played in College Station.
PREDICTION: Rice 27, Mississippi State 24