"Our team and program is so excited with the opportunity, the reward of going to a bowl game," Coach Dan Mullen said Sunday. "Not only that, but to get a premier matchup of a ranked team and the all-time winningest program in college football history is a special game."
Mullen and athletic director Scott Stricklin got the official good word before 5:00 Sunday afternoon, ending a tense waiting period for everyone as Mississippi State's post-season fate was being discussed and even cussed by suddenly-frantic fans. When all the bowl berthing shook out, though, Stricklin—who had put on a push in recent days to get the program to a January 1 game in the Sunshine State—figured the program had just won a big victory.
"We're excited about taking a bunch of Mississippi State Bulldogs, our players and fans and coaches, to a great New Years Day bowl game in the state of Florida," said Stricklin. "When you live in the South and are part of the SEC, a New Years Day bowl game in Florida is a pretty cool deal. And it's the first time in 75 years our program will have that opportunity."
This is State's first New Years Day game since the 1999 Cotton Bowl, and the fifth out of 13 total bowl trips. Of course State's first ever Bulldog bowl was back in 1937 at the Orange Bowl. Much has changed in the decades since but the excitement of a New Years Day game remains special.
Bowl committee member Steve Tremel made an early gaffe in his Sunday comments, referring to the "University of Mississippi State." But otherwise he had the right words for Bulldog folk. "I believe it might be the first time they match up with Michigan, which I also think will give some great excitement for New Years Day."
Seating capacity for the Gator Bowl is listed at 77,000. The SEC participant has been allocated 15,000 tickets while the Big Ten team gets 12,500. Mississippi State Bulldog Club members and season ticket holders have placed pre-orders for some 16,000 tickets according to Stricklin. "So we've love some more tickets and we'll make sure we have a packed house," Stricklin said on the teleconference in an open plea for extra ducats.
"We're trying to create an economic impact for our city, knowing fans will come," Tremel said. "We've seen them sell out their stadium, and talking to Scott and seeing how many tickets they've already sold made our decision very easy." While a Gator Bowl staffer won't arrive on MSU's campus for a formal appearance until Monday afternoon, committee members were in town back in February as the bowl made the transition to a SEC affiliate. Stricklin noted that they attended the same basketball game where MSU's Jarvis Varnado set the NCAA shot blocking record, and the event gave an idea how State fans can turn out.
This is the Gator Bowl's first year as a post season partner of the SEC, and State has never been to this event since the 1945 organization. Michigan has been twice but not since 1990 when the Wolverines whipped Ole Miss 35-3. While Mullen is taking a team bowling for the first time, he is familiar with the venue after four years with Florida. From 2005-08 his Gator teams were 3-1 against Georgia in Jacksonville.
Not only is this State's first meeting with the Wolverines, it is only the fourth Big Ten team ever faced by a Bulldog squad. The most recent was Illinois back in the 1980 season when MSU won 28-21 on the road. State has played three times in the state of Michigan, all against Michigan State and all from 1928-47.
This will be one of three SEC vs. Big Ten matchups on New Years Day, all in the state of Florida and all kicking off in the 1:00-1:30 timeslot.
Sunday's announcement by the Gator Bowl Association ended an unexpectedly tense waiting period for MSU officials and fans alike. And, added a surprise ending to the bowl-booking process. As soon as the Bulldogs capped their regular season with a 31-23 victory at Ole Miss, expectations were State would go bowling for the fourth time in Atlanta, at the Chick-fil-A Bowl. By yesterday though much about the SEC's bowl situation was suddenly in flux, save only for the certainty Auburn would play in the B.C.S. Championship game after routing South Carolina.
As things played out, some fans will certainly be disappointed over Atlanta considering that 23,000 pre-orders were placed and lots of hotel reservations made. Mullen isn't the least bit let down. "We couldn't be happier," he said. "We're just thrilled with the SEC's support of our program, and obviously very thankful the Gator Bowl selected to choose us."
The bowl presents a few ‘reunion' angles for State staff, too. Stricklin and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez worked together at Tulane in the 1990s. Mullen knew his counterpart from summer meetings and sharing thoughts about varieties of the spread offense both operate.
And, Mullen even attempted to recruit Wolverine quarterback Denard Robinson. "He certainly hasn't taken a step backwards! He's the most dynamic player we've faced this season." As to being able to apply his ‘the school up north' title to a team that is indeed the original target of such tagging by their own old rival, "Yeah, but they're Michigan right now." Mullen said.
Along with the bowl speculation, Mullen has been a target himself of rumors about interest in open major conference jobs. As to how he's handled the talk, "I haven't handled anything!" Mullen laughed. "The only administrator I've talked to about coaching football is Scott Stricklin! Right now we're working on what we hope is a deal that will suit everybody and get our program going in the right direction in the long term."
In the somewhat shorter term, of course, the Bulldogs are headed in a southeasterly direction to ring in the New Year. Oh, and as for ringing with cowbells?... Tremel had the right answer.
"I think we're looking for more cowbell!" he quipped.