Louisville and Mississippi State will finish their seasons against each other when they face off in the TaxSlayer Bowl from EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 30.
For the Bulldogs, their campaign is ending in transition, as Dan Mullen left on Nov. 26 to become Florida’s new head coach. Mullen departs Mississippi State after nine seasons, going 69-46 and leading the program to a level of success not seen since the Jackie Sherrill era.
The Bulldogs hired Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, as Mullen's replacement, but running backs coach and special teams coordinator Greg Knox will serve as the interim head coach for this game.
Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) are coming off of a three-point loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl in a game that also saw heralded quarterback Nick Fitzgerald go down with an ankle injury. The Bulldogs are set to play in their eighth straight bowl game and a second in a row in Florida. Last year, Mississippi State beat Miami (Ohio) 17-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Louisville enters this game with the exact same record, overall and conference, as the Bulldogs but the Cardinals have won three in a row. Louisville beat Virginia and Syracuse to finish its ACC slate and then manhandled in-state rival Kentucky 44-17 in Lexington to close out the regular season. Just like Mississippi State, this is the Cardinals’ eighth consecutive postseason appearance and their second in a row in Florida. Louisville lost to LSU 29-9 in last year’s Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
A year after winning the Heisman Trophy, Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson finished third earlier this month behind winner Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and runner-up Bryce Love (Stanford). But make no mistake, Jackson is a dynamic threat that has accounted for 4,932 yards and 42 touchdowns this year.
Louisville and Mississippi State have met four times. The Bulldogs are 4-0 against the Cardinals, with all wins coming from 1973-76, but Mississippi State eventually forfeited their victories in 1975 and ‘76.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Louisville vs. Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: EverBank Field (Jacksonville, Fla.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisville -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Mississippi State quarterback Keytaon Thompson
Dan Mullen’s departure won’t be the only one that will be felt by Mississippi State on Saturday. When Nick Fitzgerald went down in the first quarter of the Egg Bowl with an ankle injury, so did a large percentage of the Bulldogs’ offensive production. Thompson, a talented freshman from New Orleans, filled in and went 13 of 27 passing for 127 yards for a touchdown and an interception, and he also ran 121 yards and a score.
For this game, Thompson will have had more than a month to prepare and practice with the first-team offense. For the season, Thompson has thrown for 261 yards, two touchdowns and an interception to go along with 299 yards and three scores on the ground.
A Mullen recruit, Thompson is in the same dual-threat mold of Fitzgerald, meaning he’s capable of beating you with his arm and his legs. Thompson struggled with his accuracy against Ole Miss, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given his lack of experience. It will be interesting to see how he fares against Louisville and how quickly he finds his rhythm.
2. Louisville’s vaunted run game vs. Mississippi State’s sound run defense
If you’ve paid attention to college football the last couple of seasons, the success of the Cardinals’ running game should come as no surprise.
They enter this game ranked 23rd in the country in rushing, averaging 249.9 yards per game. Lamar Jackson (1,443 yards, 17 TDs) is the leading rusher, but running backs Malik Williams (518, 4) and Reggie Bonnafon (446, 7) have done their part as well.
The Bulldogs have been solid against the run, holding opponents to just 127 rushing yards per game thus far, which translates to 3.73 yards per carry. Contrast that to Louisville, who is averaging 6.58 yards per attempt. It may be simplistic to boil this game down to this matchup, but whichever team is able to gain an edge on the ground will more than likely be in good position to come out victorious.
3. Beefy Bulldogs Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons
Mississippi State landed not one, but two All-SEC first-team selections on defense in Sweat and Simmons (above, right). Sweat, an outside linebacker, leads the SEC in sacks with 9.5, and he claimed three SEC defensive player of the week honors this season.
Simmons boasts 11 tackles for a loss with 4.5 sacks. He too has earned multiple SEC defensive lineman of the week honors, and he also leads the FBS with three blocked kicks.
While both are a handful individually, together they’re ferocious. Louisville’s offensive line will have its hands full trying to contain the powerful duo. On the flip side, Sweat and Simmons would love nothing more than to make a Cardinal other than Jackson beat the Bulldogs’ defense.
Although some Mississippi State fans are still bitter about former head coach Dan Mullen’s departure, there’s no denying he had made the Bulldogs relevant again, leaving behind a wealth of talent for new head coach Joe Moorhead.
While the loss of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and Mullen dampen some of the enthusiasm for this game, don’t expect those losses to impact Mississippi State’s intensity in Jacksonville. Quarterback Keytaon Thompson should be adequately prepared to run the offense, and with Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons manning the defense, Louisville will face a formidable opponent.
For the Cardinals, quarterback Lamar Jackson has put together quite the two-season run, although this postseason he won’t have to deal with the expectations that come with winning the Heisman Trophy. In what’s likely to be his last collegiate game, Jackson should again impress with a dazzling performance.
This year's TaxSlayer Bowl promises to be one of the bowl season's best. But in the end, the Bulldogs find a way to escape with the win.
Prediction: Mississippi State 28, Louisville 27
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.