Coach Dan Mullen took the positive tone at Monday's final pre-bowl press conference. "We are excited, we've had a great practice," said Mullen, who has taken a third-straight Bulldog team into bowl season. "We're really pleased with the focus our guys have had and the attention to detail."
Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) has spent five days now working on their gameplanning details. As have the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten), who are making their fifth-straight bowl trip. Unlike the Bulldogs, winners of the previous two post-season games, Northwestern has dropped their past four bowl contests. This raises another obvious motivation angle, about which team has put more into playing and winning tomorrow.
"My thought is get the guys to the game on time," Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald joked, adding that his team is as well-prepared for a bowl game as has ever been in his seven seasons. "Now we may not play that way tomorrow. But it's like any other game, and it's our job as coaches to make adjustments and make them as clear as we can."
Wildcats defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt was more candid. "It's really been a motivating factor the whole month, really the whole season, to finish the job."
Mississippi State motivation might come from another, regular-season source. Seven games in the Bulldogs were unbeaten and ranked as high as 11th in the B.C.S. calculations. The back-loaded schedule resulted in three-straight losses to ranked opponents, and a completely frustrating finish in the Egg Bowl. Mullen downplayed that source of incentive though.
"To be honest it was so long ago. For us, you look at a season as a whole. I think our guys are pretty motivated to finish it off the right way. We had a lot of big wins this year and some tough losses this year. I think our guys want to finish off the season the right way and send these seniors out winning a bowl championship."
One of those, linebacker Cameron Lawrence, doesn't even need other angles…though he assuredly wants to conclude his career with a 30th victory. "But I get excited getting to play different schools. It's always fun to have a new experiences, a new opponent. It's kind of a new challenge."
At a familiar venue for many of these Bulldogs, too. It was Mullen's second State squad, the 2010 team, that put the program back in post-season play with another 8-4 record. They celebrated New Years Day in Jacksonville in style, thrashing Michigan 52-14. There are no less than 44 current Bulldogs who were on that '10 roster, though less than half of them played in the bowl game and many redshirts did not dress out.
"You look at the team that came here a couple of years ago, I think we brought 115 guys and twenty of them (actually 21 according to the bowl's participation chart, eight of them starters) participated in the game. It's just that short time frame your roster just changes." What Mullen doesn't want to change though is how Bulldog teams of any year go about bowl business.
Especially that first Gator Bowl bunch, who applied a real passion to their first holiday experience.
"Two years ago when we hadn't been to a bowl game I thought our seniors did a fabulous job of creating the focus of separating the fun and the practice time. With such a young team we have this year, so many of our guys weren't involved two years ago, a lot of it is new to them. Not just our captains but all our seniors have done a great job of educating the young guys on the bowl experience and how to handle yourself for the game.
"I think our focus has been better this week than it was two years ago, overall focus while we've been at practice. But our coaches and seniors have understood that and done a great job of keeping that attention of our team. When it's time to work, we work."
That work is completed. Tuesday is time to play, and none appreciates it more than senior Banks as he pulls on the uniform for a 51st and final college game. "Coach Mullen just wants us to finish strong," Banks said. "Play hard, be physical, do it for ourselves, do it for our family, do it for our fan base." Well, and for themselves, maybe? Yes, Banks said, for themselves too.
"We want to go out being known as one of the best senior classes in Mississippi State history, playing in three back-to-back bowl games and trying to be one of the winningest programs in school history. I love to win and I hate to lose. If we lose it will be stuck with me for a long, long time. And I'm looking forward to going out here and competing and having fun."