SEC: David Bailiff
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.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M held its regularly scheduled weekly news conference on Tuesday in advance of its season opener against Rice on Saturday. While many wonder about the status of quarterback Johnny Manziel, there are other things to keep an eye on. Here are five storylines facing the Aggies as they await the Owls at Kyle Field:
1. Will Manziel play?
That's what Texas A&M fans and much of the college football wants to know: will Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel start on Saturday for Texas A&M? The question remains unanswered officially. Athletic director Eric Hyman released a statement on Monday evening indicated that he instructed the coaching staff and players to not comment on Manziel's status. When Kevin Sumlin was asked about it on Tuesday he said "We're not discussing that....I can't talk about how that decision is going to be made and what goes into that decision. I said from day one, the first day [of training camp], that there will be a lot of people involved in that decision. So what goes into how that decision's made, obviously I can't discuss." So for now, the wait continues.
2. What if Manziel doesn't play?
At this point, the Aggies turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill. Both received praise from coaches and teammates alike on Tuesday. Senior running back Ben Malena said he believes the team will be comfortable with whoever is taking snaps on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said offensively, the Aggies would still remain the same. Joeckel brings the presence of a pocket passer who has already spent a year learning the offense while Hill is a dual threat who can run and throw and has had to learn the offense quickly. But on Tuesday, the Aggies appeared confident in both of them should either be pressed into duty.
3. New faces
Sumlin advised fans attending Saturday's game to "buy a program or bring a flip card," because of how many newcomers will see time on the field. Of the 31 players who signed with the Aggies in February, Sumlin said he expects at least 10 to play a role this season, and perhaps as many as 15. Some of the notable newcomers to look for on Saturday include freshmen receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and LaQuvionte Gonzalez, tight end Cameron Clear, who was a juco transfer, linebacker Tommy Sanders -- also a juco transfer -- and true freshman linebacker Shaan Washington. Look for even more newcomers to get looks on special teams, including some of the aforementioned names.
4. Missing personnel
There are suspensions facing three defensive players: senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, junior cornerback Deshazor Everett and junior safety Floyd Raven, all three of whom had off-the-field legal trouble this offseason. Ennis and Raven will miss the entire game; Everett will miss a half. Ennis is a starter, so that means you could see a true freshman -- either Isaiah Golden or Hardreck Walker -- in his place when the Aggies go to four defensive linemen. In place of Everett, also a starter, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that the Aggies will rotate cornerbacks. Expect to see a heavy dose of Tramain Jacobs but possibly some freshmen such as Alex Sezer, Victor Davis or Tavares Garner as possibilities.Raven isn't listed as the starter at free safety like he was coming out of spring football. Instead, it's junior Clay Honeycutt, who Snyder was complimentary of on Tuesday. Honeycutt, a former high school quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High, has come a long way according to Snyder and has earned himself the start against Rice.
Also of note, running back Brandon Williams [foot surgery] might be limited. Offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said "I wouldn't expect to see a lot from Brandon on Saturday."
5. Familiar foes
The Aggies and Owls haven't met on the field since the Southwest Conference folded in 1995, as both teams were part of the now-defunct league, but the coaching staffs do have recent history. David Bailiff is in his seventh season at Rice, a rival of Houston, where Sumlin was the head coach for four seasons (2008-2011). Snyder also stood on a sideline opposite Bailiff when Snyder was the head coach at Marshall from 2005-09. Sumlin's staff also recruited Rice starting quarterback Taylor McHargue when Sumlin was with the Cougars. So there is plenty of familiarity, at least in terms of coaching staffs, between the two squads.