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Tuesday, December 31, 2013
AutoZone Liberty Bowl preview

By Chris Low

Rice (10-3, 7-1 Conference USA) and Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC) square off on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET (ESPN) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn. Here's a quick preview:

Who to watch: In what has been the “Year of the Quarterback” in the SEC, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott established himself as one of the more productive multi-purpose quarterbacks in the league. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore took over as the Bulldogs’ starter after Tyler Russell suffered a concussion in the opener. He’s a bruising runner with a big right arm and proved to be as resilient as he was athletic. Prescott came off the bench in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss and played through a painful nerve injury in his left elbow to lead the Bulldogs to a 17-10 overtime victory that locked up their fourth straight bowl appearance. A few weeks earlier, he came back and played valiantly in a tough loss to Texas A&M less than a week after his mother, Peggy, lost her battle with cancer. Prescott should be as healthy as he has been for the bowl game. In SEC games only this season, he ranked fourth in total offense with an average of 269.3 yards per game, finishing ahead of the likes of AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Nick Marshall and Connor Shaw.

What to watch: Rice senior running back Charles Ross has rushed for 1,252 yards and scored 15 touchdowns this season, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. The Owls are one of the better rushing teams in the country. They’re averaging 240.2 yards per game on the ground and ranked 16th nationally. Even though Mississippi State ranked in the middle of the pack in the SEC in terms of rushing defense, the Bulldogs were outstanding defensively down the stretch. They held their previous three opponents to 20 or fewer points, including Alabama, which was a season low for the Crimson Tide. They also held Auburn to a season-low 120 rushing yards back in September. The Bulldogs are built to stop the run, which will be a must if they’re going to leave Memphis victorious.

Why to watch: Rice coach David Bailiff, in his seventh season, has the Owls on the brink of history. They’re coming off a Conference USA championship, their first outright conference championship since winning the Southwest Conference title in 1957, and can win 11 games for the first time in school history with a victory over Mississippi State in the bowl game. This is only Rice’s third bowl appearance since 1954, so Bailiff clearly has this program headed in the right direction. Mississippi State and Dan Mullen also have a chance to do something that has been done only one other time in Starkville in the past 50 seasons, and that’s record a fourth straight winning season. Jackie Sherrill led the Bulldogs to four straight winning seasons from 1997-2000.

Prediction: Mississippi State 28, Rice 24. The Owls are a senior-dominated team and brought back all but two starters from last season’s team. They’ll be ready to go and are playing with a lot of confidence after winning nine of their past 10 games. The key for Mississippi State is having a healthy Prescott. He puts a ton of pressure on a defense with his ability to run and pass, and the Bulldogs are good enough up front defensively to force the Owls out of their comfort zone.