SEC: Chris Givens

The SEC started bowl season 1-0 after Mississippi State beat Wake Forest 23-17 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Friday night.

Mississippi State racked some points up early, but Wake Forest fought back before the Bulldogs' defense hunkered down for most of the second half.

Here's the instant analysis:

How the game was won: Mississippi State's offense racked up 246 yards and 16 points in the first half, while the Demon Deacons managed just 130 yards and a touchdown. The Bulldogs' defense played well all night, especially the closer Wake Forest got to the end zone. Mississippi State held Wake Forest to 287 total yards. On offense, quarterback Chris Relf overcame two interceptions to play effectively both throwing and running the ball. Mississippi State's running game put up 253 yards, including 180 from senior Vick Ballard.

Turning point: After Wake Forest cut Mississippi State's lead to 16-14 early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs' offense was pretty quiet in the third quarter. But with almost 13 minutes remaining in the game, Ballard took a carry up the middle for a 72-yard touchdown, making it a two-score game and giving the Bulldogs enough points for the win.

Stat of the game: The teams combined to go 7-of-30 on third downs, with Wake Forest converting just 2-of-17.

Stat of the game 2: Wake Forest won the turnover battle 4-0.

Player of the game: Ballard made the most of his final game in a Mississippi State uniform. The senior carried the ball only 14 times, but had 180 yards and had touchdowns of 60 and 72 yards. Ballard pounded the Demon Deacons' defense through the middle of the field and used his speed to make a handful of plays off the edge. He outrushed Wake Forest by 117 yards on 24 less carries.

Unsung hero of the game: Friday might have been defensive tackle Fletcher Cox's final game with the Bulldogs as well. He had a strong game, recording seven tackles (including two for loss), assisting on a sack, blocking his fifth career kick (a school record) and providing plenty of pressure inside Wake Forest's backfield all night.

Second guessing: Dan Mullen has a pretty aggressive coaching style, but he made a bad call when he decided to go for the end zone from the Wake Forest 9-yard line with six seconds left in the first half instead of kicking a field goal. Wake Forest grabbed a chunk of momentum and drove 64 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter to make it 16-14. Luckily for Mullen, the play didn't cost Mississippi State the win.

What it means: Mullen has now directed Mississippi State to bowl wins in back-to-back years for the first time in more than a decade. It also gives Mississippi State its fifth straight bowl win overall. The Bulldogs have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade. Mississippi State didn't live up to its higher expectations this season, but getting to seven wins -- including a bowl victory -- will make the offseason much easier for Mullen and his players.

Record performance: Cox wasn't the only one taking home a school record. Wake Forest wide receiver Chris Givens entered the game with a school-record 1,276 receiving yards. The ACC's leader in receiving for the 2011 season added to his record-setting year by gaining 54 more yards on nine catches, giving the junior 1,330 yards on the year.

Music City Bowl keys

December, 30, 2011
Here are three keys for Mississippi State heading into Friday's Franklin American Mortgage Music Bowl against Wake Forest:

Get the passing game going: With Tyler Russell's knee still not 100 percent, the Bulldogs will send veteran quarterback Chris Relf out first against Wake Forest. Relf was one of the biggest SEC surprises last year, but lost his starting job during the second half of the 2011 season. While Relf has struggled this season, the Demon Deacons rank 72nd nationally in pass defense, allowing nearly 240 passing yards per game and have allowed 21 touchdowns through the air. Mississippi State's offense has stalled at times this year, but opening up the passing game could overwhelm Wake Forest.

Blanket Chris Givens: Mississippi State has a pretty talented secondary, but there was more bend in that unit than people expected. Now, that group will have to contain Givens, who led the ACC with 1,276 receiving yards (a school record) and had nine touchdowns. Givens recorded seven 100-plus-yard performances this season, including an eight-catch, 191-yard outing against Maryland late in the year. The Bulldogs are giving up 195 passing yards a game, and containing Givens should be the top objective for this defensive backfield.

Keep Vick Ballard going: Quietly, Ballard eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season. With his 5-11, 220-pound frame, Ballard is a bullish downhill running back. He struggled with consistency throughout the season, but he's coming off a 144-yard performance against Ole Miss and the break should make his legs fresh. Wake Forest is giving up 163 rushing yards a game, and opponents have scored 19 touchdowns on the ground against the Demon Deacons. Passing will be important for Mississippi State, but Ballard is too much of a force to ignore.

Music City Bowl: Miss. State-Wake Forest

December, 30, 2011
Mississippi State (6-6) makes its second straight bowl trip and takes on Wake Forest (6-6) on Friday night in Nashville in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Here’s a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Mississippi State junior defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. This may be the last chance to see him play, period, at least in the college game. Cox is being projected by some analysts as a first-round NFL draft selection and is thinking about turning pro. He was the best interior defensive lineman in the SEC the second half of the season and enters the bowl game with 12.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks. That’s after getting off to a slow start and going four straight games without a tackle for loss. The Mississippi State coaches challenged him publicly, and the 6-4, 295-pound Cox ended the regular season on a tear.

WHAT TO WATCH: Johnthan Banks vs. Chris Givens. Banks is one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC, and Givens is one of the top receivers in the ACC. The two talented juniors are both thinking about leaving school early and entering the NFL draft. Banks has five interceptions this season and 12 for his career. He was one of two players in the NCAA this season to have an interception return for a touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown. It was a breakthrough season for Givens, who caught 74 passes and a set a school record with 1,276 receiving yards. He also caught nine touchdown passes and is the player on Wake Forest’s team that will command the most attention from Mississippi State’s defense.

WHY TO WATCH: The winner leaves Nashville with a winning season and the loser with a losing season. In Mississippi State’s case, the Bulldogs are trying to put together their second straight winning season for the first time since 1997-2000 when they had four straight winning seasons under Jackie Sherrill. The postseason brought out the best in the Bulldogs a year ago when they thrashed Michigan in the Gator Bowl. They're still looking for a complete game this season. Maybe they'll put it all together again in the bowl game.

PREDICTION: Mississippi State 31, Wake Forest 17. Both teams just did squeeze into the postseason, but Wake Forest was really wobbling there at the end. The Deacons' only victories since the second week of October came over Duke and Maryland. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were playing their best defense when the regular season ended, and that will be the difference in the Music City.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-6) vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (6-6)

Dec. 30, 6:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Mississippi State take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: After the 2010 season, in which the Bulldogs had their first nine-win season since 1999, the expectations in Starkville skyrocketed.

Third-year coach Dan Mullen appeared to have enough returning on offense to continue riding that momentum. Losing a couple of key members to the front seven on defense was worrisome, but the offense was always supposed to lead the way.

After the first two weeks, the Bulldogs were averaging 588 yards and 46.5 points, but a goal-line stop of quarterback Chris Relf might have changed everything for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State came up less than a foot short of going to overtime against Auburn when Relf was stopped as time expired in a 41-34 heartbreaker.

The Bulldogs were never the same after that, as injuries hurt the offensive line and they lost three of their next five.

Mullen entered the season with only two wins against Western Division opponents, with both coming against Ole Miss. Nothing changed in 2011, as the Bulldogs’ only SEC wins came against Kentucky and the Rebels.

While the offense struggled throughout the season, Mississippi’s defense kept the Bulldogs in games for most of the year. By sweeping the nonconference schedule and blowing out Ole Miss at the end of the year, Mississippi State became bowl eligible for the second straight year under Mullen and will look to win its fifth straight bowl game.

Wake Forest take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: The Deacs had a disappointing finish to the season, losing four of their final five games. Considering they made it to the postseason following last season's 3-9 campaign, 2011 was a success.

Wake Forest was a much-improved team, and put itself in position to win the Atlantic Division title. Even more surprising was the fact that it came down to a last-second, game-winning field goal against Clemson, which clinched the division with the 31-28 win over the Deacs on Nov. 12. Wake Forest beat Maryland the following week to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2008, and will be making the program’s fifth bowl appearance in 11 years under coach Jim Grobe.

Much of Wake’s success this year can be attributed to the maturation of quarterback Tanner Price, and the development of several key players around him like receiver Chris Givens. Cornerback Merrill Noel was named the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year and he has 20 passes defended.

The Deacons have compiled a 6-3 (.667) record in their nine previous bowl appearances and are 3-1 in bowl games under Grobe. The Deacs have won five of their last six bowl games. Wake Forest and Mississippi State will be meeting for the first time.