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Sunday, December 30, 2012
Pregame: TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

By Adam Rittenberg

Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)

WHO TO WATCH: Northwestern running back Venric Mark. A year ago, Mark was a nonfactor at receiver. Now he's an All-American because of his explosiveness both as a running back and as a return man. The junior gave Northwestern its first true threat at running back since 2008 and, alongside quarterback Kain Colter, changed the offense from a pass-happy attack to more ground-based. He ranks 23rd nationally in rushing (109.2 yards per game), first in punt-return average (20.1 ypr) and ninth in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg). He needs 148 yards in the bowl to set Northwestern's single-season record. Despite his size (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), Mark likes running between the tackles and challenging much bigger defenders. But his breakaway speed is his best attribute, and he's responsible for 23 plays of 20 yards or longer and 10 plays of 40 yards or longer.

WHAT TO WATCH: Mississippi State's secondary. There might not be a better cornerback tandem in the country than Johnthan Banks, the Thorpe Award winner, and All-SEC selection Darius Slay. Banks and Slay combined for nine interceptions, 22 passes defended, two fumble recoveries and three tackles for loss. Northwestern doesn't throw the ball nearly as much as it did in previous seasons and might be even more hesitant to challenge Banks and Slay. It'll be interesting to see how both men help against the run, an area in which Mississippi State has had some issues (69th nationally). The Bulldogs are very experienced and dangerous in the secondary with 124 starts and 40 interceptions (eight returned for touchdowns) combined among the starting four.

WHY TO WATCH: Northwestern is a young team that exceeded most expectations with nine wins and easily could have had more (three blown fourth-quarter leads). The program is enjoying an unprecedented period of sustained success, but it continues to be haunted by a bowl losing streak that stretches back to the 1949 Rose. Northwestern hopes to erase the "final negative," as coach Pat Fitzgerald puts it, and notch just the third 10-win season in team history. Mississippi State, meanwhile, does its best work in the postseason and brings the nation's longest active bowl win streak (five games) to Jacksonville, Fla. The Bulldogs struggled down the stretch after a 7-0 start and are still seeking a signature win to cap the season. Quarterback Tyler Russell leads a record-setting Mississippi State pass attack against a Northwestern defense that, while improved, still is prone to breakdowns.

PREDICTION: Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24. Russell will make some plays in this one, but Northwestern has the better résumé, easily could be in a better bowl and ended the season playing much better than Dan Mullen's Bulldogs (lost four of last five). Mark and Colter will find enough space against an average Mississippi State run defense, and Northwestern will force a key turnover or two in the second half. It'll be close, but Northwestern prevails to end the bowl losing streak.