With the exception of last season, the Music City Bowl has given us plenty of competitive matchups over the years, and the 2019 version figures to be no different with the Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-6, 3-5 SEC) taking on the Louisville Cardinals (7-5, 5-3 ACC).
It was a disappointing season for Mississippi State, who expected much better than a .500 record in head coach Joe Moorhead's second season. The Bulldogs needed a narrow, controversial one-point victory over rival Ole Miss just to secure bowl eligibility in the final week of the season and were not at all competitive in blowout losses to Auburn, LSU, Alabama, and Texas A&M. One bright spot this season for MSU was the play of star running back Kylin Hill, who rushed for 1,347 yards in his junior year.
On the flip side, Louisville had as good of a year as you could ask for with first-year head coach Scott Satterfield after the debacle that was the 2018 season under Bobby Petrino. The Cardinals pulled off upsets of Wake Forest and Virginia and won most of the games that they were heavily favored in, which could not be said of the previous staff. A victory over an SEC opponent would be the perfect capper to a successful season for Louisville.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Mississippi State (6-6) vs. Louisville (7-5)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
Spread: Mississippi State -4.5
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
Kylin Hill has already declared his intentions to enter the NFL draft after this season but announced that he will still play in Monday's game. Expect a heavy dosage of the junior running back who topped 100 rushing yards in eight of his 12 games this year, including four of the last five games to close the regular season. Hill was thought to be joined in the backfield by freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader, whom Joe Moorhead announced will get the nod over opening week starter Tommy Stevens. That has since changed with Shrader reportedly getting involved in a post-practice altercation that resulted in an injury.
The former Penn State transfer got the nod to start the season, but injuries combined with ineffective play forced the Shrader into duty during the month of October. Stevens did play well at times to close the year, including three touchdowns in the win over FCS opponent Abilene Christian, but the offense was much more effective with the freshman under center.
The good news, though, is that this is a very forgiving defense in Louisville that allows 210.8 yards per game on the ground and finished 111th nationally in scoring defense, giving up 34 points per contest.
When Louisville Has the Ball
The Cardinals can match Mississippi State step for step in the ground game with their own backfield duo of quarterback Micale Cunningham and sophomore running back Javian Hawkins. Cunningham began the year as a second-stringer but took over after starter Jawon Pass suffered an injury and never looked back, finishing the year with more than 2,000 total yards and 26 combined touchdowns. Cunningham closed the season strong with a combined 18 touchdowns in the last five games alone; the sophomore QB looks to be a building block for this staff moving forward.
Speaking of building blocks, the Cardinals have another outstanding skill position player in and star receiver Chatarius Atwell. Both Atwell (first) and Hawkins (second) were named All-ACC. Atwell was an absolute terror for opposing cornerbacks, finishing the regular season with 1,129 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns and four 100-yard receiving performances in the last five weeks of the year. Hawkins went for 1,420 rushing yards on 241 carries as a first-year starter with seven 100-yard games on the season. Both will be integral parts of the game plan if Louisville is to win this game.
Numbers aside, you have a team in Mississippi State that did not meet expectations this season, while Louisville surpassed expectations in 2019. That could signal motivation being a major factor in this matchup, which is not uncommon for bowl games. The Bulldogs probably have more talent on both sides of the football, but the Cardinals are the team entering Monday’s matchup with far more inspiration, as many did not expect them to be playing in a bowl game so soon. And that will give them the nod from a coaching standpoint. Louisville pulls out a win late in a mild upset.
Prediction: Louisville 35, Mississippi State 31
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.