Talkin' Football previews the Liberty Bowl between Rice and Mississippi State
MEMPHIS, TN - Conference affiliation is of little importance to teams playing to win a football game. Whether the team is from the Mountain West, PAC 12, Big 12, SEC, or Conference USA, the objective is to win. The wins and losses in both columns look the same; they do not list conference affiliations next to W's or L's.
However, in the case of Rice against Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl, the ‘just because’ phrase seems to apply in most early predictions. Whether it’s three or seven points, Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference seems to get the winning nod over Rice of Conference USA.
It’s very difficult for opposing conferences and teams to escape what seems to be the reality of college football; the SEC is the best conference in college football. The top teams in the league have been tremendous in dominating and have gained that reputation by winning nine of the last 15 National Championships going back to 1998.
Therefore, in the case of Mississippi State against Rice, the SEC mystique looms large. However, when listening to Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen, every indication is that it might be wise to take a good long look at the Rice Owls and prepare accordingly.
“They’re a very, very physical football team,” said Mullen. "They have great size. You don’t win 10 games and a conference championship by not being a great football team. You watch them – they’re very sound on offense, very sound on defense. They’re not a Star-Wars type team and do a lot of crazy stuff.”
Bowl Matchup – Owls vs. Bulldogs
This will be the second meeting between Rice and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won the first matchup 28-14 back in 1975. However, they had to forfeit games won that season and every game during the ’76 and ’77 seasons, as well, due to impermissible benefits to a player.
Therefore, now the two teams have a chance to start anew and begin a new relationship. Mississippi State finished 6-6, 3-5 in the SEC, and enjoyed big wins over Ole Miss and Arkansas. Notable losses were to Oklahoma State, Auburn, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Alabama.
Rice finished 10-3 and is the C-USA champion for the first time after a 41-24 win over Marshall back on Dec. 7. The Owls lost to Texas A&M, Houston, and at North Texas. However, they finished 7-1 in conference and 2-2 in non-conference play.
Mississippi State is 2-1 in bowl games under fifth year head coach Dan Mullen. Since David Bailiff took over as head coach of the Owls in 2007, Rice is 2-0 in bowl games.
On the Field
Dual-threat quarterback Taylor McHargue leads the 16th ranked Rice offense. The 6-foot-2-inch senior field general has shown tremendous passing ability tossing for 2,261 yards and 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Opposing teams are also wary of McHargue’s running ability, as he has rushed for 466 yards and five touchdowns on 151 carries.
Speaking of carries, he has plenty of talent in the backfield to handle that responsibility. Senior tailback Charles Ross is a load at 230 pounds and has carried the ball 201 times for 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Freshman running back Jowan Davis offers so much athleticism and toughness, while redshirt freshman Darik Dillard has added 396 yards and three touchdowns to the stat sheet.
McHargue’s receivers are fast and precise in their route running. The 6-foot-5 junior wideout Jordan Taylor leads this group with 846 yards and eight touchdowns on 54 receptions. But, while it’s important to keep track of Taylor, it’s also important to keep track of senior speedster Donte Moore, fleet-of-foot sophomore Dennis Parks, and sure-handed senior Klein Kubiak.
The defense has been stifling under second-year defensive coordinator, Chris Thurman. Against Tulane back on Nov. 30, the Owls held a 15-0 advantage in first downs during the first half, while only allowing six for the game. Against Marshall in the C-USA Championship game, the Owls defense held the Thundering Herd to 106 yards rushing while Owls offense enjoyed 239 yards rushing on the day.
The Owls averaged 425.6 yards offensively while Mississippi State averaged 426.2 yards per game this season. The Bulldogs like to run the football and averaged 185.8 yards per game. Their total offensive average per game was 426.2 yards per game. Their leader on offense is sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott who at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds is hard to bring down. Prescott is a punishing runner who has hurt defenses this season for 751 yards and 11 touchdowns on 120 carries.
The Bulldogs want to run the football with Prescott, senior running back LaDarius Perkins, and sophomore Josh Robinson. Prescott’s go-to guy in the passing game is junior Jameon Lewis who has amassed 703 yards and five touchdowns. Prescott will also look to junior wide receiver Robert Johnson and junior tight end Malcolm Johnson for relief. The Bulldogs are ranked 11th nationally in time of possession and with 340-pound, All-American senior guard Gabe Jackson, the bulldogs can create huge running lanes.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are ranked 34th nationally and allow 366.3 yards per game. The problem is the Bulldogs have suffered injuries to key players.
The question begs as to how big a victory will be for either team. The Bulldogs have a chance to finish with a winning record while the Owls would like to finish the season with the best record in school history at 11-3.
The Liberty Bowl gets underway at 3 p.m CT in Memphis, Tenn.