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Liberty Bowl Preview and Prediction: Rice vs. Mississippi State

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Rice is playing in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1960-61. Mississippi State is playing in its fourth consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history.

Needless to say, this is a bigger game for both teams than the average postseason bowl matchup. Dan Mullen has to win to avoid State's first losing season since 2009, and Rice would reach 11 wins for the first time in school history should it leave Memphis victorious.

Both teams enter the final game of the year surging with energy. The Bulldogs capped the regular season with a dramatic overtime victory over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl to earn bowl eligibility. Meanwhile, the Owls won its first conference title since 1957 when it handled Marshall with surprising ease in the C-USA championship game.

The crowd in the Liberty Bowl will be an intriguing storyline to track because the Bulldogs should have a decided fan advantage. Starkville is just 180 miles from Memphis and the State fans will travel well. 

These two programs have met only once when Mississippi State won 28-14 in 1975 in Houston. However, MSU later forfeited the win.

Rice vs. Mississippi State

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Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 4:00 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Mississippi State -7

Rice’s Key to Victory: Get Charles Ross going
Rice's senior running back Charles Ross has quietly had an excellent season for the Owls. He led C-USA in rushing with 113.8 yards per game and led the league with 14 rushing touchdowns. Obviously, getting Ross rolling early is the Owls only hope for hanging with the more talented SEC opponent. As the entire college football world has learned this season, the zone-read is the great equalizer and could give the C-USA champs a chance to pull the upset against the Bulldogs. 

Mississippi State’s Key to Victory: A disciplined D-Line
During Rice's four-game winning streak, the Owls have averaged 58.3 attempts for 278.8 yards and 3.3 touchdowns rushing per game. The Rice zone-read attack will be tricky for the Bulldogs defensive front that played well against Ole Miss, Alabama and South Carolina but was gashed for big chunks of yards by Arkansas, Texas A&M and LSU. State should have a significant talent edge in the trenches (on both sides of the ball) and if this group plays sound fundamental football against Rice, the physicality of the SEC roster should be able to wear down the smaller Owls frontline.

Key Player: Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
After missing both the Alabama and Arkansas games, Prescott came off the bench to lead MSU to a critical victory over archrival Ole Miss in The Egg Bowl. He brings excellent athleticism to Mullen's offense with his ability to make plays on the ground. However, prior to injury, Prescott was beginning to develop as a passer as well. He posted career-passing highs in back-to-back weeks against Kentucky and South Carolina before getting hurt. Should Prescott create balance on offense for Mississippi State, Rice will have a tough time stopping this team.

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Final Analysis
Rice is a great story this fall. David Bailiff is easy to root for. And Rice had success running the ball against an SEC team early in the year when it rolled up 306 yards against Texas A&M in the season opener. That said, given a month to prepare, Mullen's squad should be capable of handling a team that barely beat FAU, Tulsa, UTSA, UAB and Tulane by a combined 20 total points.

Prediction: Mississippi State 31, Rice 20