Perhaps the most endearing aspects about college football’s bowl season are the exotic matchups and locations of teams and stadiums that would otherwise never see the light of day in the regular season.
This year’s St. Petersburg Bowl features the curious pairing of Miami (Ohio) and Mississippi State in a location that is far from “exotic” in Tropicana Field, MLB’s worst stadium and home of the Tampa Bay Rays. But it’s for a late morning college football game the day after Christmas, so who are we to complain?
After starting the season 0-6, Miami rode the MAC’s second-ranked defense to six straight wins and its first bowl berth since 2010. A RedHawks victory against an SEC team to close things out would be a colorful feather in the cap of third-year head coach Chuck Martin, who is gradually rebuilding the program.
Thanks to a high APR, Dan Mullen has led his Mississippi State squad to a seventh straight bowl appearance, otherwise the Bulldogs would still be in Starkville for the holidays after going 5-7 in the regular season.
St. Petersburg Bowl: Miami (Ohio) vs. Mississippi State
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 26 at 11 a.m. ET
Where: Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Mississippi State -14
Three Things to Watch
1. The emergence of Nick Fitzgerald
It can’t be easy following in the large footsteps of Dak Prescott, arguably the best quarterback in Mississippi State history, but Fitzgerald appears to be coming into his own. The sophomore leads the SEC in total yards (3,524) and has really put himself on the national map over these past few months. Sure, Fitzgerald is rather erratic, forces passes, and can be prone to turning the ball over, but the raw talent and athleticism he possesses is undeniable.
Fitzgerald is still blossoming as a passer (2,281 yards, 21 TD, 10 INT, 54.5 percent completion rate), but he’s already a legitimate weapon on the ground. He enters this game with 1,243 rushing yards (third in the SEC) and 14 touchdowns. And even though he’s a quarterback, whose rushing totals include yards lost due to sacks, Fitzgerald is averaging an impressive seven yards per carry. Miami’s defense has been solid against the run all season, ranking second in the MAC and holding opponents to 3.9 yards per carry, but it’s safe to say the RedHawks have faced a dual-threat signal-caller whose been as explosive and productive as Fitzgerald.
2. ...and Gus Ragland too
Over the first six games of the season, Miami’s offense was stagnant, averaging a measly 17 points per game. After the 0-6 start, head coach Chuck Martin made the switch from sophomore Billy Bahl to classmate Ragland at quarterback. The change clearly worked, as the RedHawks’ offense became a force, averaging nearly 30 points per contest and helping fuel the six-game winning streak that earned them a bowl invitation.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Ragland has been efficient (62.4 percent completion rate) and mistake-free (15 TD, 0 INT) since assuming the reins. This game will present an interesting test for Ragland and Miami’s offense, as Mississippi State has had issues on defense all season The Bulldogs are last in the SEC against the pass, giving up 283 yards per game through the air.
Mississippi State should have a clear advantage when it comes to talent on both sides of the ball since there’s quite a difference between the MAC and SEC, but Ragland the RedHawks come into this game with plenty of momentum. Will Miami stay hot on offense or can the Bulldogs finally flex their defensive muscles?
3. Playing for something
It’s easy to forget that any bowl game outside of the College Football Playoff is more or less a glorified exhibition contest. Teams are only allowed 15 additional practices to prep for their bowl games, any game-like contact is limited to a minimum, and defense is often optional once the game starts.
Realistically bowl games are boons for recruiting, inflating athletic department egos, and contract leverage for coaches. Players love the travel and gift packages they receive from the bowl committees, as well as the memories with teammates that will last a lifetime, but the will to give maximum effort in a game that means little in the grand scheme isn’t always there. Players treat these games as rewards, which is exactly why I think Miami and Mississippi State will both bring it come kickoff.
Although Mississippi State did not win the requisite six games to become bowl eligible, the team’s high APR was enough to merit an invitation. While I’m sure many players are ecstatic to be playing one more game, especially outgoing seniors, the St. Petersburg Bowl doesn't necessary have the majesty of previous bowl destinations like the Orange Bowl (2014) or the Gator Bowl (‘13), and with a rash of injuries that have devastated the Bulldogs this season, it could be understandable if Mullen’s squad comes out flat.
Miami, once sitting at 0-6, could have completely given up on this season. Instead, Chuck Martin rallied his team to six straight wins, a .500 record and a trip to St. Petersburg over Christmas. No player on the RedHawks’ roster was on the team that won the 2010 GoDaddy.com Bowl, the last Miami team to go bowling. In fact, since that victory, Miami had won just 13 games – including a 0-12 campaign in 2013 – before reeling off six in a row this season. After an extended period of time residing in the college football abyss, if you will, you better believe these RedHawks are going to be fired up to play the day after Christmas.
Mississippi State clearly has the athletic advantage over Miami (Ohio), and I like what Nick Fitzgerald can do to keep defenses guessing, but with the RedHawks’ offense hitting on all cylinders coming into this game I can see Chuck Martin’s squad keeping things close throughout. As long as the Bulldogs don’t run away and hide early, I can see this game being a lot closer than the spread would indicate.
Prediction: Mississippi State 31, Miami (Ohio) 28
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
(Gus Ragland photo courtesy of www.miamiredhawks.com)