by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Music City Bowl
Wake Forest (6–6) vs. Mississippi State (6–6)
Date: Dec. 30 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Location: LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
Mississippi State is making its first trip to the Music City Bowl, leaving only Florida, South Carolina and LSU as the only SEC teams that have not spent the holidays in Nashville. The Bulldogs are saying all the right things, but this team no doubt expected to be in a bowl game in a warmer climate. Last year, MSU went 9–4 overall and capped off its season with a 52–14 victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. This fall, however, the Bulldogs had to win three of their final five games just to reach six wins and qualify for postseason play.
Wake Forest is back in a bowl game after a two-year hiatus, but the Demon Deacons aren’t exactly making the trip to Nashville with a ton of momentum. Wake won four of its first five games — highlighted by a 35–30 victory over Florida State — but managed only two more wins the rest of the way, at Duke and at home vs. Maryland. The season ended on a disappointing note when Vanderbilt dominated the Deacs, 41–7, in Winston-Salem. Jim Grobe’s club has a lot to prove as it prepares to play another team from the SEC.
WHEN WAKE FOREST HAS THE BALL:
The Deacons were dramatically improved on offense in 2011, thanks in large part to the emergence of Tanner Price at quarterback. The sophomore threw for 2,803 yards with 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions (and three of those came in one game). Price has two reliable targets in wideout Chris Givens, who led the ACC with 1,276 yards receiving, and slot receiver Michael Campanaro (63 receptions). Wake was rather ordinary in the running game, ranking 96th in the nation. Josh Harris began the season as the No. 1 back, but he has missed significant time due to a hamstring injury. Brandon Pendergrass emerged as a reliable alternative and rushed for 750 yards on a 4.5-yard average.
The Deacs will have to be sharp to move the ball on Mississippi State. The Bulldogs only allowed two teams to score more than 24 points — Auburn scored 41 in September and Arkansas rolled up 44 in mid-November. Wake will do its best to move the ball on the ground, but Price will have to make some plays in the passing game.
WHEN MISSISSIPPI STATE HAS THE BALL:
Mississippi State’s struggles this year are due mostly to its poor play on offense. Chris Relf emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC last season, but he did not have a productive senior season. Tyler Russell was given an opportunity to take over on several occasions but was never able to seize control of the position.
Dan Mullen has no issues with his No. 1 tailback. Vick Ballard was terrific as a senior, rushing for 1,009 yards and eight TDs on 179 attempts. And with Wake struggling to stop the run — the Deacs gave up an average of 220.8 yards in their final five games, including 297 vs. Vanderbilt — expect to see heavy doses of Ballard and LaDarius Perkins, a nice option as a change-of-pace back.
MSU does feature some playmakers at the wide receiver position — most notably Chad Bumphis — but it was difficult for this group to be much of a factor due to the inconsistent play from the quarterbacks.
MSU kicker Derek DePasquale was solid from close range (9-of-11 from inside 40 yards) but made only 2-of-6 from beyond 40 yards. Perkins averaged 23.3 yards on his 15 kickoff returns, and both Bumphis and Johnthan Banks each returned a punt for a touchdown.
Wake Forest doesn’t pose too much of a threat in the return game, though Camanero did return a punt 50 yards for a score. As a team, the Deacs only averaged 19.9 yards on kick returns. Placekicker Jimmy Newman made 16-of-20 attempts, only one longer than 40 yards.
It’s dangerous to put too much stock in one game, but it’s hard to believe that a Wake Forest team that was so thoroughly dominated at home by Vanderbilt, a team that went 2–6 in the SEC, will have too much success against another 2–6 SEC team, Mississippi State. The key for the Bulldogs is Ballard; if the senior tailback can get it going early, Wake could have a tough time slowing down the MSU offense.
Mississippi State 27, Wake Forest 17