By MATTHEW STEVENS
Mississippi State will be playing on New Year’s Day for the first time this century.
State (8-4, 4-4 in Southeastern Conference) has been selected to be the first Southeastern Conference member since 1994 selected to be in the Gator Bowl when they’ll take the field to face Michigan (7-5, 3-5).
The New Year’s Day marks the first game the bowl has been affiliated with the SEC and Big Ten Conference. Up until this coming year, the postseason game had been between a school from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East Conference.
“The opportunity to go to such a great game that I’ve watched my whole life on New Year’s Day is what makes the bowl system so great,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “To get a premier matchup is a special, special bowl.”
The Bulldogs will be making their first appearance in a New Year’s Day bowl since the 1999 Cotton, and it will be Mississippi State’s first trip to a bowl game in Florida since the 1941 SEC Championship team traveled to the Orange Bowl.
“We earned this trip with the way we fought throughout the season and we’re grateful to the Gator Bowl Association and the City of Jacksonville for this opportunity to play in a historic New Year’s Day Bowl,” Mullen said.
Some controversy arose in the last 48 hours as it was being reported by multiple news outlets the Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4) and SEC Eastern Division champion South Carolina (9-4, 5-3) were being passed over by the Outback Bowl for Florida despite both schools beating the Gators during the regular season in Gainesville.
“I want to congratulate our players and coaches, they have been great all season long,” MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin said Sunday night. “And I want to thank our fans, whose support was very evident to Gator Bowl officials throughout this process."
When State was then again passed over for the Gamecocks for the Chick-fil-A Bowl played in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve, questions arose as to whether the Gator Bowl committee, representing a game played in Jacksonville, would also skip MSU for a Tennessee squad with a 6-6 record.
“One of the things that any bowl game looks at and specifically our game looks at is creating economic impact for our city,” Gator Bowl chairman Stephen Tremel said. “What that really boils down to is the fans of that particular team will travel. It really made our decision pretty easy actually, we’re excited to have them here.”
Before the bowl games were announced Sunday evening, Stricklin took to his Twitter account to plead State’s case for a higher-tiered bowl game.
“One SEC bowl partner is going to get a top 25, 8-win Mississippi State team with a fired-up fan base and a dynamic young coach,” Stricklin tweeted. “This is a good time to remind all that MSU led nation last yr in increased avg attendance and has had 10-straight sellouts. TV ratings (for) last year's MSU-UF game was ESPN's highest-rated SEC game of 2009. I'm sure this yr's win in Swamp did well on ESPNU as well.”
State defeated then-No.22 Florida 10-7 on Oct. 16 for its first win in Gainesville since 1965 to earn its first national ranking since 1999. The victory over Florida also marked the first time in MSU football history the Bulldogs had beaten the Gators and Georgia in the same season.
Before reports began to surface Saturday morning of this possibility occurring, State was perceived to be a lock for the Chick-fil-A Bowl after they scouted every one of their home games and representatives seemed to suggest the MSU fan base would travel well to the Georgia Dome.
“I believe that’s a fair assessment (that State would be selected) but I can’t look you in the face and say if they win tonight, they’ll go,” Chick-fil-A Bowl representative and MSU alum Jack D’Arcy said during halftime of MSU’s 31-23 victory in the Egg Bowl at Oxford. “I also can’t say if they lose, they won’t be a pick.”
State fans have felt a similar feeling back in 1999 when the Outback Bowl selected a Georgia team with only seven regular season wins over a MSU squad with a 9-2 record that had won the Western Division. Mississippi State was then forced to accept a Cotton Bowl trip in Dallas.
It will be Mississippi State’s first ever trip to the Gator Bowl where it will be matched up for the first time in school history against Michigan for a New Year’s Day contest (1:30 p.m., ESPN2) on the home field of the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
"We are excited about the opportunity to play a very good Mississippi State team in the Gator Bowl," Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez said in a release. "They run a first-class operation, and our players will really enjoy the experience.”
This marks the first bowl game State has been selected to play in since a 10-7 win over Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl in 2007 under then-head coach Sylvester Croom.
It is the first bowl game Mullen, who is finishing his second season in Starkville, has taken Mississippi State to with the last bowl game he personally coached being the 2009 National Championship Game that Florida won over Oklahoma in Glendale.
Mullen refused to comment on the speculation that he is a serious candidate for the current opening at the University of Miami instead attempting to revert the attention back to his team’s bowl preparations.
“I haven’t handled it any way and the only administrator that I’ve talked to about coaching football at a university is Scott Stricklin,’ Mullen said. “Right now we’re working on a deal that can suit everybody and get our program going in the long term. I plan on being the head coach here for quite a long time.”
In a text to The Associated Press, Stricklin wrote that he and Mullen were having "productive discussions," but didn't divulge any other details.
When hired by the Bulldogs, Mullen originally signed a four-year deal worth about $1.2 million per year.
State will begin bowl game practices Friday after the team has completed finals this week.