Gator Bowl, State Ready To Ring In New Year

Believe it or not, Rick Catlett already has a cowbell. "A big, red one," he said. Still the Gator Bowl's chief executive welcomed adding another, white one, to his office collection. Catlett was presented the newer model Monday, appearing at Mississippi State to formally welcome the Bulldogs to their New Years Day bowl.

"Part of what we do at Mississippi State is ring a cowbell," assistant athletic director Duncan McKenzie told the Gator Bowl's CEO today. "So, we'd like to present y'all with cowbells from Coach Dan Mullen and Scott Stricklin as token of our appreciation." McKenzie was standing in for both, as Mullen and Stricklin are in New York City.

But by December 26 they and their Bulldog team will be in Jacksonville for the January 1 date with Michigan, the first-ever meeting of the programs. Kickoff at EverBank Field is 1:30 ET for ESPN2 telecast.

Besides Bulldogs and Wolverines there will be no lack of fans following both sides. The 15,000 tickets reserved for the SEC participant was already spoken for by Mississippi State pre-orders, and the Gator Bowl has provided another 1,500 tickets to State. That will be all, though. "I talked to our ticket manager this morning," said Catlett. "There were 428 tickets left in a 77,000 seat stadium. So sometime today we expect to announce a sellout." Michigan was allotted 12,500 tickets.

Such immediate, actually preliminary, demand from Dog fans played a part in sealing the Bowl's selection of State during an intense Sunday for many SEC-affiliated classics. The Gator Bowl happens to be the newest, having signed-on with the conference for this season.

"It's our 66th year, we're the sixth-oldest bowl," said Catlett. "And I can't believe over the years we haven't had Mississippi State in the game. We're happy about checking that box off." Michigan has been to the Jacksonville classic twice before, but not since 1990.

How close the Gator Bowl came to checking a different box makes for interesting speculation, given how closely matched a number of SEC bowl-eligible candidates were after the top slots were filled. After two weeks expecting a Chick-fil-A Bowl bid, Bulldog fans spent the weekend wondering exactly where their team would land.

"It was really down to whether the Outback Bowl took Florida," Catlett acknowledged. "And we didn't know that until Sunday afternoon. Once they decided, the Chick-fil-A and the Gator were on the hook and we had to figure out what we had to do."

Much is made of how close, or not, a 6-6 Tennessee came to being picked based on East Division leanings and a four-win streak. Today Catlett said "It was a pretty easy selection at that point, a 8-4 team ranked 21st in the country." He added, "It's sort of a rule, or feel, you don't pass a team after the type of season Mississippi State had for a two-win-less team." How that rule, or feel, was expressed from the SEC depends on who thinks what of course.

And as Catlett explained, SEC commissioner Mike Slive "educated" the Gator Bowl on what the league's priorities were, though the CEO did downplay suggestions of arm-twisting. "He's not going to tell you who to invite where," Catlett said. And in the end when the bowl committee did assemble to select, "I've been with the Bowl 18 years, it was the shortest meeting we ever had. It was a twenty-minute meeting.

"Scott worked very hard to educate our selection committee and people. We talked to Coach Mullen twice this weekend over the phone. I think Mississippi State conducted themselves very professionally and made sure we had all the facts to make the selection."

Of course the larger fact Catlett and company already knew was that their game was going to sell out based on pre-orders. "I want you to know, your AD worked very hard to convince this board to make this selection. Your fans have proven they were the right fans to invite, they've sold all their tickets and asked for more!"

Besides that initial visit to campus last winter, where Gator Bowl staff saw a Bulldog basketball game, Catlett was on hand at Scott Field for the Auburn game. "It's the only time I saw Cam Newton get roughed-up," Catlett noted. But then that wasn't what mattered yesterday. Other impressions did, including those from the MSU Ticket Office.

"It's not the largest stadium in the conference by any means, but when the school you just invited calls for more tickets four, five hours into the process it shows the passion you have." Catlett is not worried then that Jacksonville will receive the desired economic boost bowl games are about. And the combination of a ranked State against national-audience drawing Michigan should take care of the TV ratings angle.

Mississippi State, or rather the SEC participant, will receive a $2.2 million payout. As for the Big Ten deal, "That's something I won't give out right now," Catlett said, citing a confidentially clause with the Big Ten. "But we treat the conference differently."

Whatever the payouts, the Jacksonville coffers will be much fuller after Bulldog and Wolverine faithful leave town. As for the TV market potential, "We think it will be a very competitive game," Catlett said. Oh, and about echoes of the event? Though Mississippi State fans did adapt over the season to the ‘Ring Responsibly' campaign, there won't be SEC supervision of cowbells in the Gator Bowl.

"We're going to let them to bring them to our game and they can ring them any time they want to!"

The Bulldogs are to begin practicing this Friday and work daily through the 21st before a short Christmas break. Mississippi State is required to report to Jacksonville by 3:00 on the 26th. A full schedule of team practices and events will be provided, while back on campus Mullen will open a number of early practices to media and public. Those dates are to be set on his return from New York City.

In other Bulldog news, a pair of State stars were named to the Associated Press All-SEC first team. Senior offensive tackle Derek Sherrod and senior middle linebacker Chris White made the media first squad for 2010. It was the first A.P. team recognition for both, though last season Sherrod was a Coaches All-SEC second team pick. No Dog made the second team, but tailback Vick Ballard was an honorable mention.

The Coaches teams will be announced this week.

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